by Justin Adams | An encouraging first half turned into a disaster on Saturday night when the Utah Utes blew a 21-point halftime lead to the Washington Huskies in a 24-21 loss. Let’s take a look at some numbers to see how it happened.
Sadly, I think most Utah fans knew where this game was heading pretty early on in the third quarter. On Washington’s first two possessions of the period they scored a touchdown, followed by a field goal to cut the score to 11. What did Utah do on its first two possessions? They ran the ball on 8 out of 11 plays.
Every football fan knows that trying to run out the clock in the third quarter, no matter how large the lead, is a recipe for blowing that lead. That’s exactly what Utah did. Even in the fourth quarter when their lead had been cut to four and Washington had all the momentum, the Utes ran six rushing plays and four passing plays prior to their final drive.
Probably the most concerning part of that graph is the last category: situations in which Utah was on second down with less than five yards to go. I feel like it’s pretty common knowledge that this is the best situation to take a shot downfield. Even if you don’t get the big play, you’re still set up for a pretty favorable third down attempt. What did Utah do with these chances, of which they had six throughout the game? They ran the ball on five of them.
Looking at the drive chart below, you can reasonably argue that it’s unfair to blame the team’s conservative play-calling for the loss. After all, Andy Ludwig didn’t dial up a Bentley interception or a Ty Jordan fumble, right? Take away those turnovers and Utah wins this one with the ground game easily. The problem I have with that argument is that turnovers are more likely to happen when the offense isn’t in a rhythm and when the opposing defense knows what’s coming. Conservative play calling accomplishes both of these.
Possibly the most concerning part is how Utah was unable to get their weapons involved in the game when it mattered most.
After grabbing three passes for 65 yards in the first half, Bryan Thompson didn’t touch the ball once in the second half. In fact, no wide receivers touched the ball in the second half.
Brant Kuithe, after getting three catches and a carry in the first half, only had one catch in all of the second half. Which leads me to…
This is something I highlighted as a problem in last week’s column about the USC game, and this week it only got worse.
Running backs accounted for 38 touches on offense (79.1%). Meanwhile, the wide receivers had a total of five touches (3 for Thompson, 2 for Solomon Enis) and Kuithe represented the tight end room all on his own with five touches.
I’m no expert when it comes to the intricacies of college football game-planning, but I imagine it makes the job of opposing defensive coordinators much easier when Utah is so unwilling to try to get the ball to their wide receivers on a consistent basis. The most glaring absence of a player in the box score is Britain Covey with 0 touches. I’m assuming the hamstring that held him out of last week’s game was better because he was out there fielding punts (and was targeted on one of Bentley’s interceptions) so the fact that he never got the ball in his hands is concerning.
Also, as I said last week, the Utes’ apparent commitment to a 3-back timeshare is a little confusing. True freshman Ty Jordan has been the most effective back through two games. Against Washington, he had 21 more yards than the other three running backs combined, despite having half as many carries. In fact, his numbers are comparable to the only other running back in the PAC-12 era to receive a meaningful number of carries as a true freshman: Zack Moss.
That rightly has Utah fans excited, and some are wondering why Jordan isn’t getting the bulk of the carries. I’ve seen some of the more conspiratorial types on Twitter theorize that the coaching staff is distributing carries so equally because they don’t want any of the three to transfer before next season.
There could be some truth to that, but I think it’s more likely that the coaching staff is now approaching this four game season like an NFL coach would approach a preseason schedule. It’s four games to see what you have in your younger players. Winning is nice, but it’s not the main reason to be out there. If that’s their mindset, then there is no reason to make any one back the workhorse. However, in 2021, Ty Jordan should probably be getting the lion’s share of the carries.
Even if these games don’t matter too much, the coaching staff will want to make sure that this team’s turnover problems don’t carry on to next season. The Utes have now given away nine turnovers through two games, with five coming from USC and four against Washington. The Utes have lost over four or more turnovers in back-to-back games only twice in the PAC-12 era; one of those instances was their very first time in the conference back in 2011. The giveaways came against Washington and Arizona State.
Five of those turnovers this season have come from Jake Bentley, whose four interceptions is the most by a Utah quarterback in their first two starts since Jon Hays. He’ll have to take care of the ball much better these last two games if he wants to have another shot at winning the starting job over Cam Rising next offseason.
Featured image courtesy Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports