CARSON, California — Going into the season, which was filled with high expectations, Utah didn’t hide the fact that its ultimate goal is to win a Pac-12 championship.
Well, three weeks into the season, the Utes haven’t played a Pac-12 game yet — that starts next Saturday — but they find themselves sitting with a dreadful 1-2 record and, perhaps, they’ll soon have a new starting quarterback.
Not exactly what anybody had in mind for this Utah team.
On Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park, in what was a wild finish, Utah rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter but fell to San Diego State 33-31 in triple overtime.
After losing 26-17 last week at BYU, the Utes have now suffered back-to-back losses. Before the season kicked off, they had posted a 27-1 record against nonconference foes since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. They are 1-2 this season against nonconference opponents.
For the second consecutive week, Utah was outplayed at both lines of scrimmage for most of the game.
Yet despite that, the Utes still nearly completed an amazing comeback. They tied the game at 24-all with 16 seconds remaining on a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Cam Rising to Theo Howard, which was followed by a two-point conversion from Rising to Howard to force overtime.
“It was an amazing feeling, just to fight back from the situation we were in and dig ourselves out of that hole,” Rising said. “It was a great feeling but we’ve just got to finish.”
The game ended when, in the third overtime, Rising’s pass to Connor O’Toole was ruled incomplete after an official review.
But those late-game theatrics aside, it amounted to another disappointing setback for Utah.
“I’m proud of the way our guys hung in there. We had a furious comeback there in the fourth quarter and we came up short, obviously,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “The concerning thing is, a lot of the same things that did us in last week, and haven’t done so well through the first couple of weeks, showed up again tonight.”
The Utes allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, they missed a PAT and a field goal, they forced only one turnover and recorded only one sack. And they allowed 204 yards rushing to SDSU and they gained only 70 yards on the ground themselves.
“We’re not sharp enough as a football team right now,” Whittingham said. “We’re not polished enough. We practice the right way and prepare the right way but it’s not translated to game day like it needs to.”
San Diego State improved to 3-0 on the season.
With Utah’s offense sputtering from the outset, Britain Covey came to the rescue with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown with 8:02 left in the first quarter to give the Utes a 7-0 advantage.
“Britain Covey is a weapon for us. We know what he can do in the punt return game,” Whittingham said. “That’s no secret, that’s no surprise. That’s what he’s been doing his whole career here.”
Late in the first quarter, after three possessions, Utah had minus-10 yards of total offense. The Utes ended the first quarter with 0 yards of total offense while SDSU wasn’t much better, with 27 yards.
Early in the second quarter, San Diego State appeared to make a big special teams play of its own with a blocked punt that was taken to the end zone for a touchdown. But the TD was nullified due to an offsides penalty on the Aztecs.
That gave Utah new life, and the offense ended up putting together a 13-play, 58-yard drive that took 5:02 off the clock, capped by a 43-yard field goal by Jadon Redding.
On the ensuing kickoff, SDSU’s Jordan Byrd flew through the Utes’ kick coverage for a 100-yard touchdown return to tie the game at 10-10, which was the score at intermission.
At halftime, Utah had outgained SDSU 89-79 in total offense.
San Diego State opened the second half with an impressive drive, highlighted by a 54-yard run by quarterback Lucas Johnson and culminated with a 7-yard touchdown run by Greg Bell.
That gave the Aztecs their first lead of the game, 17-10, with 11:24 remaining in the third quarter. It was also their first offensive TD of the game.
But it didn’t take long for SDSU to strike again.
A Charlie Brewer pass in Utah territory intended for Brant Kuithe was picked off by cornerback Tayler Hawkins, who returned it to the Utah 7-yard line, where he was knocked out of bounds by Brewer.
One play later, Bell scored again to put the Aztecs up 24-10 with 10:42 left in the third.
“One of the most disappointing things of the whole game was how we came out in the second half. We were out there ready to go, we had a great halftime session and adjustments,” Whittingham said. “I thought we had things settled. We gave up two touchdowns right out of the gate. That was very disheartening. But as disheartening as that was, it was just as encouraging to watch them come back in the fourth quarter and do some of the things they did.”
Rising replaced Brewer with 5:24 left in the third period and he helped lead the Utes to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
“I hoped they were fired up. I kind of laid into them once I got into that huddle,” Rising said when he took over for Brewer. “We certainly got things going a little bit more and it started to flow a little bit better.”
On the first play of the fourth quarter, SDSU missed a 48-yard field goal attempt, which loomed large later.
The defense helped out the offense when Devin Lloyd recovered an Aztec fumble. Rising ran for 24 yards to the SDSU 9-yard line. On fourth-and-12, the Utes went for it and Rising completed a pass to Covey, who was tackled at the SDSU 4-yard line. So that drive came up empty for Utah.
But Utah’s offense roared to life.
Rising led a 10-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Covey to cut the deficit to 24-16. However, Redding missed the extra point.
Utah’s offense took over again from its own 26 with 2:36 left in the game. Rising tied the score on the two scoring passes to Howard.
In overtime, both teams scored on their first two possessions, including Rising’s 25-yard dart to Jaylen Dixon. But both kickers missed field goals in the second OT.
In the third OT, SDSU scored and it appeared the game would go into a fourth overtime, but officials ruled that O’Toole’s apparent TD was actually an incompletion.
Utah opens Pac-12 play next Saturday at home against Washington State. The best news for the Utes right now is that they’re 0-0 in conference play. But they have a lot to improve on if they hope to challenge for a Pac-12 championship.