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Analysis: Washington State offense, defense trade struggles in 38-13 loss to No. 19 Utah

Utah Utes defensive back Jaylon Johnson (1) reacts after he intercepted Washington State Cougars wide receiver Travell Harris (5) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, September 28, 2019, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SALT LAKE CITY – A single flash of light illuminated the dark sky at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the first half of an interdivisional Pac-12 battle between Washington State and No. 19 Utah.

On the lightning front, it didn’t get much more eventful than that Saturday evening, despite a few concerning forecasts earlier in the day.

Instead, what the Cougars had to worry about was a handful of smaller jolts from Tyler Huntley and the Utes’ offense, which punished the visitors through the air, on the ground and through the air again, while Utah’s defense stymied Anthony Gordon and the Air Raid en route to a 38-13 victory in front of 46,115 brave fans on a wet and rainy night in Salt Lake City.

While Utah responded from a tough loss at USC, and re-established itself as a contender in the South Division – especially with the Trojans falling to Washington earlier in the day – WSU languished for the second time in as many weeks after losing to UCLA in an embarrassing upset at Martin Stadium.

The Cougars (3-2, 0-2) are idle next week and continue a four-game trek through the Pac-12 South on Oct. 12 at Arizona State (4-1, 1-1), hoping they can change the course of their season in 14 days’ time while understanding it’ll be hard work to get there.

“You saw a pretty tough football team play a pretty soft football team,” said WSU coach Mike Leach, criticizing his team’s lack of fight and resolve for the second consecutive game. “It’s difficult to say how tough Utah is, because they had token resistance on both sides of the ball from us. We’re very soft. We get a lot of good press, we like to read it a lot, we like to pat ourselves on the back.

“And if we get any resistance, we fold. And what’s amazing is most of these guys were on the same team last year that was a tough team. … And we’ve got nearly the same guys and they’re not tough.”

The 2018 Cougars, led by Gardner Minshew and Andre Dillard on offense and Peyton Pelluer and Jalen Thompson on defense, had plenty of talent, but just as impressive was the group’s determination, courage and camaraderie.

Leach is using different verbage to describe a 2019 team that, through the last six quarters, has been outscored 88-41, and can’t seem to shake its negative energy whenever things are going poorly.

“They’re fat, dumb and happy and entitled,” the coach said Saturday night.

The Cougars hadn’t dropped consecutive Pac-12 games since 2016, when they closed the regular season with losses to Colorado and Washington, and they hadn’t lost to the Utes since 2012, ending a four-game win streak.

The big picture now looks grim for WSU, which drops to the bottom of the North Division and has a steep hill to climb if it has any intentions of reaching the conference title game. Of the 16 divisional champions the Pac-12 has had since it split into the North and South, only one team (Utah, 2018) has lost its first two conference games and went on to make the title game.

The schedule doesn’t exactly ease up, either, after the mid-October date with ASU.

WSU still has to play three current Top 25 teams on the road, traveling to Oregon, Cal and Washington, while the Cougars have a trio of unranked teams at home in Colorado, Stanford and Oregon State. Making a fifth consecutive bowl game now requires WSU, at a minimum, to finish 3-4 in its final seven games.

Last week, the Cougars frittered away and fumbled a 32-point lead against a winless UCLA team that used a 50-point surge in the second half to pull off one of the largest comebacks in college football history.

Saturday night was different because the Cougars never really had their footing to begin with, facing a Utah team that was picked by the media to win the Pac-12 South, but one that was also undermanned, playing without running back Zack Moss or wide receiver/returner Britain Covey – both returning All-Pac-12 performers.

WSU tied the score at 7-7 in the first quarter, but Utah led the rest of the way, stretching the advantage to 25 points when Huntley ran in his second touchdown of the game in the final minutes. In total, the dynamic dual-threat QB accounted for four of the Utes’ touchdowns, completing 21 of 34 passes for a season-high 334 yards and two touchdowns, and running the ball six times for 31 yards and two more scores.

“He’s a good player and all, I feel like we should’ve put more pressure on him,” WSU nose tackle Dallas Hobbs said. “… We’ve just got to piece together a few things that we were missing.”

The Cougars’ normally-potent Air Raid offense stumbled more than it had all season, managing just 313 yards of total offense and only 252 in the passing game. WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon finished 30 of 49 with one touchdown and two interceptions, throwing his second to Francis Bernard with less than six minutes left to effectively seal the outcome.

“They’re a good defense, they give us a few different looks,” Gordon said of Utah. “They do a good job of defense, but we left a lot of plays out there. A lot of yards, a lot of touchdowns. So we just need to be better as a team, myself included of course. I need to be a lot better at protecting the football and going through my reads more diligently.”

WSU had an opportunity to get back into the game early in the fourth quarter, trailing 31-13, but the Utes foiled the Cougars’ 16-play, 78-yard drive, stopping Max Borghi on the 2-yard line and holding the visitors to just one yard on three consecutive plays.

“Just collectively as a team, maybe we think we’re owed something from last year,” Gordon said. “I don’t know. We just, as a team, need to come together more and be a little bit tougher, make that decision. It’s a mindset, and it’s something we need to cultivate as a team.”