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Utah football report card: Too little, too late for Utes in loss to San Diego State

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid and San Diego State safety Cedarious Barfield try to catch a pass
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) and San Diego State safety Cedarious Barfield (27) try to catch a pass intended for Kincaid in the end zone during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. The pass was incomplete.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Utah lost its second straight non-conference game, losing 33-31 to San Diego State in Carson, California, in triple overtime Saturday night.

Here are the the grades from the Utes’ wild loss.

Offense

Through three-and-a-half quarters, the offense was at a failing grade. Eleven of Utah’s first 12 drives ended in either a punt or a turnover, with the lone offensive points coming on a Jadon Redding field goal, on a drive that was only extended via two SDSU penalties on third down and fourth down, after the Aztecs had appeared to stop the Utes. Utah was 5 of 21 on third down. That’s been a theme throughout the season, with the Utes ranked No. 122 out of 130 FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage.

The offensive line was not able to stop SDSU’s defensive front for most of three-and-a-half quarters. The Aztecs sacked Ute quarterback Charlie Brewer three times and had eight tackles for loss. Utah’s running game was not able to get going, largely due to the lack of push from the offensive line, as Micah Bernard was the only Ute running back to gain positive yardage, with 47 yards.

SDSU’s defensive line is good, yes, but Utah’s offensive line should in theory be able to handle a Mountain West line. Instead, the Utes’ line was dominated for the second straight week. The offensive line has been unable to put together a good performance against two FBS schools so far this season.

Adding to the offensive woes was Brewer, who threw into double-coverage for an interception, missed some throws that should have been easy receptions, and generally was just unable to provide a spark for the offense.

It was a very, very poor offensive performance for the Utes up to that point.

Utah subbed Brewer out for Cam Rising around the five-minute mark of the third quarter and he did turn around the offense enough to force overtime after the game was trending towards an easy Aztec win.

Rising started off slow as the Utes did not get any points during his first three drives, but he was able to rally the team in the end, scoring two touchdowns in six minutes to force overtime. The first touchdown drive was 63 yards as Rising went 7 of 8 and finished the drive with a TD pass to Britain Covey. The second drive went 74 yards in about two minutes as Rising completed three crucial third downs, including a touchdown pass to Theo Howard. Rising’s successful two-point conversion tied the game.

Rising was able to avoid the rush and extend plays with his legs a lot better than Brewer. The offensive line also improved a little over this time span, giving Rising more time to work with.

Rising threw a beautiful touchdown in the first overtime, nearly had another in the second overtime on a decent throw to Jaylen Dixon that was broken up. The throw that was overturned in the third overtime could have been better, though.

Rising should definitely be the starting quarterback moving forward.

Grade: C-

Defense

With the offense’s bad performance for most of the game, there was a lot asked of Utah’s defense. As the Utes punted the ball time after time, the defense had to go out and try and keep the game close. The defense succeeded, for the most part. Utah’s defense allowed just three points in the first half and just 79 total first-half yards.

The defense faltered a little bit in the third quarter. The 82-yard drive given up to start the third quarter, which included a 54-yard quarterback keeper, was the lowlight for the defense. The other touchdown surrendered was on a short field after a Brewer interception gave the Aztecs the ball at the Utah 7-yard line.

In overtime, the Utes’ defense gave up two scores as SDSU surprised Utah by going to the passing attack in the first overtime. In the third overtime, the defense got fooled by the Philly Special.

The Utes held the Aztecs to 248 yards of offense and the secondary was pretty good against SDSU’s passing game. In the run game, though, running back Greg Bell and the offensive line was able to get some push against Utah’s defensive line, which hasn’t been very impressive so far. Bell rushed for 119 yards and two scores and the Aztecs had 204 rushing yards.

Utah’s linebackers were once again the bright spot of the defense, as Devin Lloyd led the Utes with 13 tackles and recovered a fumble and Nephi Sewell had nine tackles.

Grade: B-

Special teams

The 80-yard Covey punt return for a touchdown was fantastic, and sorely needed after the Utes’ first two offensive drives. If not for that score, the special teams unit would have been given a failing grade.

Redding missed a field goal in overtime that would have won the game and missed a key extra point in the fourth quarter. Utah’s kick-return team gave up a 100-yard touchdown for the second time in three games. Utah’s punt team was below average, as Cameron Peasley averaged 40.1 yards per punt, though he did get two inside the 20-yard line, and had a punt blocked, though it was called back due to offsides.

Special teams is usually a strength for the Utes, but through three games, it looks like a liability.

Grade: C-

Overall

Utah has lost two games in non-conference play for the first time since joining the Pac-12. Through three quarters, the Utes were getting outplayed, especially when they had the ball, in a fashion that reminded me of the 2007 UNLV shutout game. Utah did show a lot of fight in battling back to force overtime, but Utah really should never have trailed in that game in the first place.

Utah’s goal of a Pac-12 championship is still attainable, given the state of the Pac-12 South (wow, did the South have a bad night on Saturday) and the fact the Utes haven’t played a Pac-12 game, but the performance through three games does not inspire a lot of confidence that the Utes can get there.

The offensive line still has a lot to improve on, but Rising’s performance gave fans a sliver of hope to hang onto going forward. Utah’s defensive line needs to step up going forward. Special teams also has a lot to improve on, and I don’t have a ton of confidence in Redding as a kicker.

There’s still a lot of football to be played, and the Utes drew perhaps the best Pac-12 opener, besides playing Arizona, in Washington State. Utah can start to turn its season around with a win over the Cougars.

Grade: C