SALT LAKE CITY – Kyle Whittingham made the adjustments that counted, so the longtime Utah coach got the last word when he returned to the locker room Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Make that words – plural – in the form of a tweet that had to sting Washington State fans as much as it uplifted those who pledge their support to Utah.
“28-7 … no problem,” Whittingham wrote.
WSU players may not have seen the tweet itself, but the contents of it will marinate for the next eight months until their next opportunity to play a meaningful football game.
There was no middle ground for the Cougars in Salt Lake City. They opened with their best half of football and followed it with their worst – the first half at USC included – squandering a three-touchdown deficit to Utah, which was in danger of being blown out itself before flipping the tables, scoring 38 unanswered points and emerging with a 45-28 victory.
In Nick Rolovich’s first season as WSU’s head coach, the Cougars, who played what may have been the most irregular schedule in program history, finish with a 1-3 record. A team that had three of its seven scheduled games canceled because of COVID-19 played just one game in its home venue and finished on a three-game losing streak.
It was fitting, perhaps, that the Cougars closed out an unconventional year with a game that was equally so.
“What we found is, at times, we can play with anybody in this conference,” Rolovich said. “But nobody’s good enough to make mistakes. … It changed. The first half, that’s how you’re entering ’21, a lot of confidence, a lot of belief, right? Then we get smoked in the second half. That’s going to take some internal fortitude to pull ourselves back up and go back to work.”
It was a four-play sequence in the second quarter that made the Cougars believe they could stage an upset at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Play 1 was an 8-yard touchdown pass from Jayden de Laura to Jamire Calvin to make it 21-7; Play 2 was an inconsequential 2-yard run from Utah QB Jake Bentley; Play 3 was a Bentley interception returned to the 3-yard line by Jahad Woods and Play 4 was a 3-yard option keeper touchdown from de Laura that meant WSU would match its largest lead of the season, at 28-7.
It was a four-play sequence in the fourth quarter that ultimately sealed the Cougars’ fate. With things already unraveling for the visitors, running back Max Borghi, otherwise superb in his first game back from injury, let the ball spill out on a 13-yard run. After an incomplete pass from Utes QB Drew Lisk, who’d replace Bentley in the second quarter, running back Ty Jordan broke through two tackles and spun into the end zone for a 13-yard score to give the Utes their first lead at 35-28.
On WSU’s next play from scrimmage, de Laura had his arm back ready to deliver when Utah’s Mika Tafua interrupted his throwing motion and knocked the ball loose, giving Devin Kaufusi the chance to recover.
Even then, the Utes still left the door open. WSU forced a three-and-out, but as punter Jarred March drove the ball downfield, freshman Joey Hobert lunged to make a block, only catching the leg of the Utah specialist.
Referees flagged the Cougars freshman for a personal foul and Utah kicker Jadon Redding hit a 44-yard field goal four plays later to make it a 38-28 Utes lead.
“I don’t know if they did anything that was so much different as it was us not being prepared for it,” WSU right tackle Abraham Lucas said. “I think that as a team, we got complacent at halftime. Anytime you go up by three touchdowns at halftime, it feels great, it’s euphoric and everything. But you also have to realize there’s two more quarters to play and a lot can happen in 30 minutes.
“You saw what happened out there, we ended up losing, unfortunately. … We just did not match their energy and intensity in the second half.”
In the third quarter alone, Utah outgained WSU 149-10 and the Utes had 89 rushing yards to the Cougars’ minus-6. Those margins weren’t as wide in the fourth quarter, but the Cougars did themselves no favors, losing three fumbles and throwing an interception. Even when the Utes seemed to have victory in hand, they continued to punish a WSU team that wouldn’t get out of its own way.
De Laura’s interception with 2:06 to go was returned 36 yards for a touchdown by Clark Phillips. When the Cougars had second-and-goal with 10 seconds left, Travell Harris fumbled on a screen pass from backup QB Cammon Cooper.
Rolovich didn’t sense the same complacency Lucas noticed, but he didn’t hesitate to point out the mental mistakes his team made. Aside from the four turnovers WSU committed in the final quarter, the Cougars committed nine penalties with two unsportsmanlike conduct flags – both coming from postplay celebrations – and a personal foul.
“I didn’t necessarily sense complacency,” Rolovich said. “I got after them for the personal fouls, because that put us in a bad place, right? Kicking off from the 20, we ended up getting a block in the back that didn’t make it as bad, but that could’ve turned the game right there and I think those are selfish penalties.”
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