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How Utah woke up in the 2nd half, roared back to stun Washington State

The Utes scored 38 unanswered points in the second half behind a dominating defense and backup quarterback Drew Lisk.

Utah Utes running back Ty Jordan (22) carries the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
Utah Utes running back Ty Jordan (22) carries the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

For the Utah Utes, the unique, bizarre 2020 season won’t end with a bowl game, but, fittingly, the campaign concluded in unique and bizarre fashion.

The Utes’ second-half performance Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the 2020 regular-season finale won’t be forgotten by Utah faithful. For the second consecutive week, the Utes overcame a halftime deficit. Except this time that deficit was 21 points, 28-7, after a disastrous first-half performance.

Utah — which voted not to play in a bowl game, something the program announced Friday — roared back in the second half Saturday behind a suffocating defensive effort and senior backup quarterback Drew Lisk, who sparked an offense that languished in the first half.

In the end, the Utes scored 38 unanswered points and stunned Washington State, 45-28.

“By the looks of the first half, you would have thought we had opted out of that half and the bowl game,” coach Kyle Whittingham joked. “We woke up in the second half, I guess you could say, and just made play after play after play. It snowballed.”

It was a comeback similar to the one Utah staged in 2018 when it rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit against BYU and outscored the Cougars 35-7 in the second half.

The Cougars from Washington State were similarly shell-shocked as the Utah defense shut down their run-and-shoot offense cold over the final 30 minutes.

The Utes forced four straight turnovers in the fourth quarter to finish the game. They allowed the Cougars just one first down in the second half until Washington State’s final series. In the third quarter, WSU had just 10 yards of offense, including minus-six rushing yards.

“We needed to do exactly what we did,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “We needed to stop the run and limit their pass game and not let them get any points at all. We accomplished that.”

Utah limited the Cougars to 108 total yards in the second half and forced four consecutive turnovers in the fourth quarter to end the game.

“We didn’t have much margin for error,” Whittingham said. “When you’re down 28-7, you’ve got to make a bunch of plays. We made pretty much every one we had to make.”

Last week at Colorado, the Utes scored 28 unanswered points in the second half in a 38-21 victory.

Utah ends up with a 3-2 record and will go into the 2021 season on a three-game winning streak. It’s the first time the Utes won’t go to a bowl game since 2013. Their next game will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Weber State on Sept. 2, 2021. Certainly, Saturday’s spectacular comeback provides a nice springboard going into next season.

While the defense rolled in the second half, so did Lisk, who orchestrated four consecutive touchdown drives.

Jadon Redding added a career-best 44-yard field goal with 2:37 to seal the victory, and for good measure, Utah’s scoring was capped by freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III’s 36-yard pick-six with 2:06 remaining.

Freshman running back Ty Jordan ran 22 times for 154 yards and three touchdowns. His game-winner came with 6:29 left — he took a handoff from Lisk, made a jump cut, picked his way through blockers, spun and did a little pirouette into the end zone.

Jordan is the first Ute to score three TDs in a game since Zack Moss accomplished the feat in 2018. It was the third straight week that Jordan rushed for more than 100 yards.

Before the season officially began — a short month ago — who would have guessed it would be Lisk and Jordan making plays for Utah’s offense?

Meanwhile, that first half was something that Utah would like to purge from its collective memory. The Ute offense set the tone early with a false start penalty on its first play from scrimmage, and Jordan and Samson Nacua each had a fumble in the first half.

Quarterback Jake Bentley struggled mightily, which included regularly throwing behind his receivers. Then, after he threw an interception that Jahad Woods returned 36 yards to set up Washington State’s final touchdown of the first half to make it 28-7, Whittingham had seen enough and he summoned Lisk off the bench.

What did Whittingham tell his team at halftime?

“We had two options,” he said. “It was either throw out the white flag or come ready to play and try to play like we’re capable of. That’s what happened in the second half.”

Jordan said Whittingham’s halftime speech was succinct but to the point.

“We basically had to be ourselves. It was time to turn up,” he said. “(Whittingham) basically told us, ‘If you don’t want to go out the last 30 minutes of the game, stay in the locker room.’ As you can see, everyone that came out was ready to work.”

Washington State, which was playing in just its second game in 38 days, finished the season with a 1-3 record.

For Utah, well, it can spend the offseason remembering a stellar second-half performance.

“We took complete control of the game,” Whittingham said. “A very fitting way to end a weird season. A weird type of a game to end a strange season.”

EXTRA POINTS: About 400 family members of players and coaches were allowed to watch the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium … In the second quarter, Jake Bentley threw a 91-yard touchdown pass to Britain Covey, the second-longest TD pass in school history ...Saturday was Phillips III’s birthday … Saturday marked Whittingham’s 200th game as Utah’s head coach … Utah did not hold Senior Day festivities. Players’ status are uncertain because they could return next season.