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Utah’s goal of a Pac-12 title remains, even as the Utes are ‘a work in progress’

Unlike previous recent meetings, BYU, which entered the rankings Sunday at No. 23, was more physical than the Utes, controlled the lines of scrimmage and exerted its will.

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Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard finds an opening during game against BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium Sept. 11, 2021.

Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2) finds an opening in the line as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

For the first time in a long, long time, Utah knows how it feels to be on the other side of a result in the rivalry game. 

The wrong side.

BYU upset the Utes 26-17 Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium and in the process, the Cougars snapped a nine-game losing streak against their rival and knocked then-No. 21 Utah (1-1) out of the top 25 rankings. 

Unlike previous recent meetings, BYU (2-0), which entered the rankings Sunday at No. 23, was more physical than the Utes, controlled the lines of scrimmage and exerted its will. 

As disappointing as the outcome was for the Utes, coach Kyle Whittingham and his players know they need to regroup quickly. 

Utah visits San Diego State Saturday (5 p.m., MDT, CBSSN) in Carson, California. 

The Aztecs stomped Pac-12 South foe Arizona 38-14 on Saturday. 

“We’ve got a road trip to San Diego State. They really put one on Arizona, so we’ll have our hands full in that game,” Whittingham said. “All we can do is pick ourselves up off the mat, figure out what our deficiencies are and get them corrected and be ready to play the Aztecs next week.”

After the game, Whittingham reminded his players that despite the loss to BYU, it doesn’t impact their goal of capturing a Pac-12 championship

“The message was we’re disappointed that we didn’t play as well as we’re capable of playing, I can tell you that for certain. I’m not trying to take anything away from (the Cougars’) victory because they earned it,” Whittingham said. “That was not our best football.

“We’ve got to pick ourselves up off the mat. We have a lot of football ahead of us. This does nothing to our ultimate goal of trying to win the Pac-12, which is obviously going to be very challenging, but we’ve got to pick ourselves up, figure out what went wrong and move forward.”

So what went wrong against the Cougars? 

Well, for starters, the Utes didn’t force any sacks or turnovers. They surrendered 219 rushing yards and allowed BYU to convert 11 of 19 third downs while converting just 2 of 9 themselves. 

“You’ve got to win on third down,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to do a better job on third down. Offensively, we ran the ball pretty good at times, but if you can’t convert on third down and keep drives alive, it’s not going to be a good outcome.”

Cougar quarterback Jaren Hall was effective at making plays with both his arm and his legs against Utah’s defense.

“We had zero sacks and that’s unacceptable. We had no turnovers and no havoc plays at all,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “That’s unacceptable for our defense. We have to take pride and get to the quarterback and make big plays at the end of the day.”

Where do the Utes go from here?

“Well, we’re a work in progress, like pretty much every team in the country at this point in the season, a couple of games in. You lean on your leaders heavily. That’s something that, we need to have those guys step up and make sure we have more resolve and more determination than what we had (Saturday night),” Whittingham said.

“Not that anybody laid down because we don’t quit, but we have to find a way to be better, and the captains are a big part of that. We’ve got to work harder as coaches, if that’s possible. We’re in the office for hours on end. We’ve got to work smarter than what we’re doing. We’ve got to be better coaches.”

Quarterback Charlie Brewer completed 15 of 26 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Utah opened the game with two turnovers on its first two offensive possessions. 

“His numbers weren’t bad. We didn’t throw the ball a ton. His completion percentage was fairly high. We did have the interception,” Whittingham said of Brewer’s performance. “It was not an ideal way to start the game with two turnovers. It could have been 21-0 early very easily but our defense did some really good things early on.

“As for as Charlie’s performance, we’ll have to take a good, hard look at the film and see what was going on there.”

Running back Micah Bernard was a bright spot for the Utes. He rushed 12 times for 146 yards, including a 50-yard pickup and a 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. 

“We just turned the ball over. We didn’t play our best game at all, whatsoever,” Bernard said. “We’ve got a lot to work on. We’re going to come back next week harder than ever and come out with a (win),”

Bernard may have proven himself to be the Utes’ top running back. 

“He played very well tonight. He ran hard and ripped off some big runs. He’s also a great receiver out of the backfield, so he’s a great weapon for us. He played his heart out,” Whittingham said. “Micah certainly seemed to get some separation between him and the other backs tonight.”

Running back Tavion Thomas had seven carries for 26 yards and a fumble. He also coughed up a fumble in the season opener against Weber State.

“It’s extremely frustrating, but you’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t put it on the ground. There was another one that was stripped. Fortunately, his knee was down,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got to do a better job securing the football. That’s job No. 1. If you can’t secure the football, you can’t play.

“Now, we’re not going to give up on Tavion by any means, but you cannot have the ball turned over. He’s just going to have to fix that and we’ll work with him on that every single day in practice. He’s gotten better, but you saw it (Saturday), that’s two that counted in two games. That’s too many.”

For all of Utah’s shortcomings in Provo, Whittingham was proud of the way his players persevered. The Utes cut the deficit to 23-17 midway through the fourth quarter on Bernard’s TD run. 

“There’s no quit in our guys. I was proud of our guys for hanging in there until the very end,” Whittingham said. “They continued to battle. That’s encouraging. There’s a lot of fight in these guys, but we came up short.”

Now Utah must go on the road again and try to start a new winning streak. 

“We’ve got to keep moving on. You can’t dwell on the past,” Bernard said. “This is the past now. We’ll get to work now next week. San Diego State, we’ve got to go 1-0 against them.”