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As Pac-12 showdown with UCLA looms, Utah needs to shore up some weaknesses in all 3 phases

The Utes are tied with Arizona State for first place in the Pac-12 South. The two programs have identical 3-1 records in league play.

Oregon State wide receiver Anthony Gould (15) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Utah.
Oregon State wide receiver Anthony Gould (15) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore.
Amanda Loman, Associated Press

Utah’s 42-34 loss at Oregon State Saturday gave the Utes their first Pac-12 setback of the season and it ended their three-game winning streak.

But the good news for Utah? It remains in first place in the Pac-12 South, tied with Arizona State. The Utes and Sun Devils have identical 3-1 records in league play. Utah handed ASU its only league defeat on Oct. 16.

“From what I understand, we’re still in first place in the South, or at least tied for first,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We beat (ASU) head-to-head, so, technically, we’re still in first place.”

However, Oregon State exposed some of the Utes’ weaknesses on offense, defense and special teams.

Next up for Utah is a Pac-12 South showdown Saturday (8 p.m., MDT, ESPN) when the Utes host UCLA.

After the setback to OSU and another big game on the horizon, where does Utah (4-3, 3-1) go from here?

“We go back to Salt Lake City and we get ready to play the Bruins,” said quarterback Cam Rising.

UCLA (5-3, 3-2) is coming off a 34-31 home loss to No. 10 Oregon.

For the Utes, staying in first place likely could require a victory against the Bruins.

“A lot of positives going forward that we have to play for. We’re not even halfway through the conference schedule. Four down, five to go,” Whittingham said. “I told the guys, don’t hang your head; just come back with resolve. It’s a balanced conference with a lot of good teams. There’s a lot of give and take. That’s just how it is. (OSU) outperformed us (Saturday). They made a few more plays than we did. That was the story.”

The Utes will have to be much better defensively if they are going to beat the Bruins and coach Chip Kelly’s dynamic offensive attack.

Utah surrendered 468 yards of total offense against Oregon State, which ran for 260 yards. Running back B.J. Baylor averaged 8 yards per attempt and finished with 152 yards on 19 carries, including a 68-yard run that set up a touchdown in the second quarter.

Against UCLA, the Utes will be without star linebacker Devin Lloyd in the first half because he was penalized for targeting in the second half against OSU.

Meanwhile, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson suffered an injury late in the fourth quarter against Oregon. His availability for the Utah game is uncertain, although Thompson-Robinson tweeted “I’m okay!” Saturday night.

Whittingham was happy about the way his quarterback, Rising, played against Oregon State.

Rising completed 22 of 36 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. As an offense, the Utes amassed 455 yards of total offense. Running back Tavion Thomas ran 21 times for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“A lot of positives for the offense,” Whittingham said. “We put 450 yards of total offense and he had 34 points and we didn’t turn (the ball) over. We had some good individual performances. I thought Cam performed well … We have a lot of confidence in Cam Rising and the offense. We have a lot of playmakers there.”

But Utah had some drives stall in the red zone against OSU.

In the first half, for example, the Utes had fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Rising threw a pass to Brant Kuithe, who was tackled at the 1. The Utes also had to settle for a couple of field goals.

Rising acknowledged that the offense has issues to fix.

“Go back and watch the film and see what we need to correct and make sure we get it corrected so it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Make sure that we’re better next time.”

In regard to special teams, Utah gave up a couple of long kickoff returns for touchdowns earlier this season.

Last Saturday, the Utes had two punts blocked. One of Cameron Peasley’s punts was blocked by OSU’s Riley Sharp and the ball was scooped up by Luke Musgrave, who scored a 27-yard touchdown that gave Oregon State a 28-24 advantage.

Whittingham called that “maybe the biggest play of the game.”

Later, the Beavers blocked another punt but it was negated by a penalty. OSU had two players wearing the same jersey number on that play, which is illegal.

“The first one we had blocked, we had a shield error. Our shield gave up a soft spot and the guy stuck his hand through. That’s what happened,” Whittingham explained. “I couldn’t tell what happened with the second one ... That ultimately ended up not hurting us because of the penalty. We’ve got to take a hard look at that protection and see if we need to change some people out or whatever we’ve got to do to fix it. We’ve got our work cut out for us on that.”

If Utah is going to win the Pac-12 South, it needs to shore up issues in all three phases of the game.