This is a real conference, as we’ve seen today. So you’ve just got to come out and play every week — every Saturday. – Kaelin Clay
SALT LAKE CITY — Things seemed to be cruising right along for the Utah Utes in their Pac-12 opener against Washington State. Thanks to touchdowns from the defense, special teams and offense, they built a decisive lead just over nine minutes into Saturday’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Problem was, there was still a lot of football to be played and the visiting Cougars used the remaining time to rally for a 28-27 victory.
“As bad as we played from the 21-0 point forward, we still had a chance to win. We’ve just got to make a play — get a stop on defense, make a play on offense — and couldn’t get it done,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “So give credit to Washington State. They hung in there. They persevered. They made plays.”
Quarterback Connor Halliday completed 39 of 61 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, including two on fourth-down situations, as the Cougars rallied past the Utes. Halliday overcame three sacks, two interceptions and a lost fumble in doing so.
Utah’s passing attack wasn’t nearly as effective, even with less obstacles (one sack and no interceptions). Quarterback Travis Wilson was 18 of 38 for 165 yards and no scores. Receiving leader Dres Anderson had no catches and a couple of costly drops.
Whittingham acknowledged that the Utes have got to be more productive throwing the ball. He said they didn’t make plays they should have and could have made.
After noting that the passing numbers weren’t nearly good enough, Whittingham explained that Saturday’s setback wasn’t just one person’s fault. He said that one more play on defense or special teams might have made a difference as well.
“We’re all involved,” Whittingham explained. “But I know we’ve got to be more productive on offense — have to.”
One offensive touchdown, off a 76-yard run by Devontae Booker in the first quarter, was all the Utes could muster against the Cougars.
And in the end, it just wasn’t enough to prevent Utah from dropping its fourth-straight Pac-12 opener — even though the Utes were favored and held an early 21-point advantage.
Nor was an 11-yard interception return for a score by Eric Rowe, a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kaelin Clay, or a pair of field goals by Andy Phillips.
“We had a lot of chances and opportunities to win,” Booker said. “We just didn’t come through today.”
Clay considered it proof that the Pac-12 is not a cupcake conference. Utah is now 9-19 in league games since joining the mix in 2011.
“This is a real conference, as we’ve seen today. So you’ve just got to come out and play every week — every Saturday,” said Clay, who added that the Utes have to put the disappointing loss behind them and prepare to play to the best of their ability over the next eight games.
Utah (3-1, 0-1) has a tough road ahead, beginning with a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, Saturday night to face No. 8 UCLA (4-0, 1-0).
“We’re going to come out swinging. That’s no threat or anything like that,” said defensive tackle Jason Fanaika. “But you know we’re going to come out swinging and we’re going to come out ready to play.”
Four of Utah’s next six opponents are ranked in the top 16, beginning with the Bruins.
“It makes things real easy. Go on the road for a top 10 team,” Whittingham said. “That’s a piece of cake.”
Whittingham noted that the Utes have got to find out who they are this week. The players will get back to work and the coaches will be racking their brains long before that. After watching UCLA defeat Arizona State 62-27 on Thursday, he summarized that the Bruins looked like they’ve got a lot of things going for them.
“So that will be a big challenge for us at their place,” he said.
EXTRA POINTS: Utah starting safety Tevin Carter did not play because of an undisclosed injury. Whittingham said “we hope so” when asked if the senior will be back next week. ... Saturday’s Utah-UCLA game will kick off at 8:30 p.m. MDT and be broadcast on ESPN. ... Booker’s 178 yards rushing are the most by a Utah player since John White netted 185 against Washington State in 2011.