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Utah Utes’ high-flying season gets grounded in the end

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Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) is tackled by Texas Longhorns defensive back Anthony Cook (4) and linebacker Ayodele Adeoye (40) during the second half of the Valero Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SAN ANTONIO — Technically speaking, the Utah Utes won what amounted to eight straight championship games during the 2019 season. After losing to USC in their Pac-12 opener, they wound up needing to win all of their remaining contests — against Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona State, California, Washington, UCLA, Arizona and Colorado — in order to reach the conference championship game.

Utah did as needed, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 308-76 margin during the run. The streak carried the Utes to new heights in the College Football Playoff era. They climbed to No. 5 in the second-to-last rankings, one spot out of a berth in the national semifinals. The surge also led to a second straight Pac-12 South championship.

All was well and the Utes were cruising right along. There was talk about the CFP and statistical success nationally on both offense and defense.

Utah’s roll through the unofficial championship games was impressive.

Things changed, however, when the contests really counted. The Utes dropped a 22-point decision to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They followed it up with a 38-10 loss to unranked Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Tuesday.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it was “a very disappointing ending to a very good season.” The 11th-ranked Utes, he noted, won 11 games — the third-most in team history and the best since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.

“When you judge the entire body of work throughout the course of the season, these guys accomplished some very good things,” said Whittingham, who added that it isn’t how they wanted to send the seniors out. “But the last two football games we got outplayed, we got out-coached, so we’ve got to figure out our problems — go back to work, get better, continue to improve in all areas.”

The back-to-back setbacks to end the year — something Utah (11-3) has now done two seasons in a row — continued a streak of Pac-12 runners-up faltering in their bowl games.

Utah’s bid for a breakthrough was stymied by a sluggish start on offense. The Utes were held scoreless in the first half. They trailed 10-0 at the break, netting just 127 yards of total offense and only seven first downs.

“We just weren’t able to find rhythm,” said Moss, who explained that they wanted to soften Texas with the run game and make the Longhorns pay for the amount of blitzing they were doing.

Whittingham also acknowledged that the pressure wasn’t handled like it should have been by the Utes.

Texas, meanwhile, countered with 185 yards of offense over the first two quarters. The Longhorns scored on a 29-yard field goal by Cameron Dicker less than five minutes into the game and then on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Sam Ehlinger to Collin Johnson early in the second quarter.

The situation grew worse for Utah in the third quarter. Texas added an 11-yard scoring strike from Ehlinger to Keaontay Ingram before the Utes managed to put any points on the board.

Trailing 17-0, Utah’s initial score came on a 32-yard field goal by Jadon Redding with 4:58 left in the quarter. It failed to sway much momentum. Texas responded with another touchdown — off a 6-yard run by Ehlinger — to carry a 24-3 advantage into the final 15 minutes.

The Utes gave up 100 yards and seven first downs in the third quarter, but the fourth opened with promise. Utah scored a touchdown on a 4-yard throw from Tyler Huntley to Demari Simpkins with 11:34 remaining.

The Longhorns, though, countered with another TD to maintain their cushion. They capped a 75-yard drive with a 15-yard connection from Ehlinger to Devin Duvernay. Less than one minute later —¸with 7:54 left to play — Ingram rambled 49 yards for a TD to close out all scoring in the game.

Texas wound up with 438 yards of offense. Ehlinger threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns to lead the way. The game’s Most Valuable Player on offense also ran for 73 yards and a score.

“It’s a shame we didn’t finish stronger. Nobody’s happy in our locker room,” Whittingham noted. “We’re all feeling disappointed, but — like I’ve said — it’s the time of year now where you judge everything then take a step back, keep things in perspective and understand what you’ve accomplished and what you’re deficiencies are and what you need to work on going forward.” 

“When you judge the entire body of work throughout the course of the season, these guys accomplished some very good things, but the last two football games we got outplayed, we got out-coached, so we’ve got to figure out our problems — go back to work, get better, continue to improve in all areas.” — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham

During Utah’s eight-game winning streak, Huntley noted that the Utes played with great confidence.

“We were just focused and as the year started going on injuries and stuff that like changed our schedules in how we prepared and stuff,” he said. “And I just feel like this last game we took more of a vacation than really preparing for a game, and that really came and bit us in the butt.”

Moss added that he really couldn’t put a finger on what was going so well when the Utes won eight straight games. The difference between then and how things ended are hard to identify. Injuries and such came into play.

“I’m not going to sit here and make any excuses on what was the difference between this and that,” Moss said. “But it was whatever it was.”

Another senior, defensive end Bradlee Anae, explained that it wasn’t easy to keep a win streak going week after week.

“We had our foot on the gas pedal and we just kind of took it off toward the end,” Anae said. “I think that’s what it was — as far as intensity — (on) both sides of the ball.”

Whittingham added another variable to the equation.

“It would be disrespectful not to point out that Oregon and Texas are two really good football teams. They had a lot to do with what happened the last two games,” he said. “We didn’t play our best, but Oregon’s a tremendous team and Texas might be the best 7-5 team in the country, at least talent-wise.”