The game was not pretty, but No. 24 Utah (2-0) got the win over Utah State (1-1), 24-14. Starting quarterback Travis Wilson and defensive end Hunter Dimick both went down with injuries and did not return. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game that he does not believe either suffered season-ending injuries but would not comment further.
On the matter he said, "We won’t release [the nature of their injuries]. They are not done for the season. We don’t expect them to be lost for the season. If they are, we will make that known."
Whittingham did not feel the Utah football team played their best game but did credit Utah State for playing well.
"Didn’t play particularly well in any phase. Our defense shut them out in the second half. We didn’t turn the ball over. I think we need to get a lot better. Special teams are sputtering along doing some things. Chuckie Keeton played hard, as did their whole team. Utah State is well coached and they play hard. They’re a good football team," said Whittingham.
Utah running back Devontae Booker topped 100 yards rushing for the first time this season. He finished the game with 31 carries for 120 yards and one touchdown. He added two receptions for 13 yards.
Booker had this to say after the game, "I knew I’d get 100 yards at some point. We played a tough defense against Michigan and I thought I was close. Then tonight, I was able to get those yards."
True freshman wide receiver led Utah in receiving yards for the second week in a row. He caught 6 passes for 61 yards. He also added 37 yards on five punt returns, including a 30-yard return.
Whittingham praised the play of the true freshman slot receiver/punt returner, saying, "I can't say enough about Britain Covey. He's tough as nails and he means a lot to our football team. That one punt return he did all on his own by breaking tackles. He will be a force on this team and a great addition."
On his punt returning, Whittingham said, "He is so tough and we want him to be smart back there, but also make plays. He is trying to do everything he can to spark the football team. Sometimes you need to fair catch and he doesn’t like to do it. I think the one he broke [for 30 yards], he should have called fair catch but he broke some tackles and made a play."
Utah is still without a passing touchdown on the season. Wilson went 9-for-12 for 76 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions before leaving with an injury. He added 57 yards on the ground on 5 carries with one touchdown. Kendal Thompson came in for the injured Wilson and went 8-for-10 for 56 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He ran the ball 6 times for 23 yards and one touchdown. Linebacker Jared Norris led the team with 10 total tackles. Linebacker Gionni Paul and defensive end Jason Fanaika finished second with seven total tackles and one tackle for loss each. Paul added an interception and a fumble recovery, and Fanaika had a sack and a forced fumble. Safety Marcus Williams recorded the other interception for Utah on the night. Defensive end Kylie Fitts filled in well for the injured Dimick, recording five tackles and one pass break up. Recently reinstated cornerback Dominique Hatfield saw action on special teams and at cornerback during the game.
On Hatfield, Whittingham said, "He gave up the one deep ball down the sideline. He had good position and the receiver made a play on the ball. It was a great catch. He needs to get in the rotation more and more as the weeks progress. He doesn’t quite have his fitness back and he’s a big part to our secondary. We welcome him back with open arms."
Utah jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, scoring on the first possession of the game. They drove 75 yards in 10 plays on a drive capped by a 12-yard Wilson touchdown run. Utah safety Marcus Williams then intercepted a Chuckie Keeton pass. The score remained unchanged until USU scored in the second quarter to tie the game at 7. The drive was aided by a roughing the passer call on third down. Keeton looked hobbled after the hit but stayed in the game and delivered a 39-yard pass on the next play. Utah State would cap the drive with an eight-yard pass from Keeton to LaJuan Hunt for the touchdown. The game remained tied at 7 until Booker rushed for a four-yard touchdown with 06:46 remaining in the second quarter, capping a nine-play 73-yard drive that lasted 3:33. It was on that drive that Wilson went down with the injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game. Wilson came down hard on his left shoulder after a 38-yard run. He rushed the ball one more time before leaving with the injury. He was replaced by Thompson for the rest of the game. Utah was not able to hold Utah State before the half. The Aggies finished the half with a nine-play, 76-yard drive that ended with Keeton connecting with Zach Van Leeeuwen for a 15-yard touchdown. The teams went into the locker room tied at 14-14. The Utah defense struggled to put pressure on Keeton in the first half, failing to record a sack in the first two quarters.
The Utah defense started the second half strong, forcing three straight three and outs for the Utah State offense. The Utah offense also moved the ball well. They scored a touchdown on a 2-yard Thompson run on a 69-yard drive that took 12 plays, giving Utah the 21-14 lead halfway through the third quarter. Utah State did not record a single first down in the third quarter.
Utah scored again early in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard Andy Phillips field goal, giving the Utes a 24-14 lead. The field goal was set-up by a 30-yard punt return by Covey. The Utah State offense finally got going on the ensuing drive, getting the ball all the way to the Utah 25-yard line before what Whittingham called the play of the game. Having failed to record a sack up to this point in the game, Utah defensive end Pita Taumoepenu came off the edge and sacked Keeton, knocking the ball loose. The fumble was recovered by Paul, ending the Utah State scoring threat. Paul would end the final Utah State scoring threat later in the game with an interception off a tipped pass at the Utah seven-yard line with only 02:58 left in the game. Utah State gave it one last effort to try to score, driving 48 yards in five plays, but time expired before Utah State could score. After allowing 14 points in the first half, the Utah defense stiffened in the second half, holding the Aggies scoreless. Utah also managed to record their first two sacks of the season in the second half.
It was a tough, physical game. Utah ultimately came out on top with a strong performance from the defense in the second half. There is a lot that needs to be cleaned up for the Utes moving forward. Whittingham was not pleased about the play of the special teams or the push the offensive line got in the running game. Utah did give Hiva Lutui some reps on the offensive line in an effort to find the best combination of five guys up-front.
On the offensive line he said, "We have to find five guys that can move some people around. We haven’t done that two weeks in a row. We’ve been very average."
Utah State head coach Matt Wells was proud of the way his players played, but it is still a loss for the Aggies.
"It’s a loss. We won’t spin it any other way than that. This program didn’t come down here to play good. This program didn’t come down here to show improvement over game one. This program came down here to win a dadgum ball game. We came up short. I give Utah credit. I’m proud of my kids. They fought. This team’s going to win a lot of games. We’ll make corrections. There’s a lot of good. There’s a lot of things that need to get corrected, I already know that. We’ll be very diligent in doing that and we’ll continue to improve," said Wells.
The most important stat of the game after the score is turnovers, and Utah finished the game plus-three in the turnover margin. Creating takeaways on defense and taking care of the football on offense is a huge focus for the Utah football team.
"[The turnover margin is] the most important part of the game other than the final score. We know what our percentage of winning the game becomes when we win that battle. We stress it every day. Take care of the football on offense and turn them over on defense," said Whittingham.
Here is video of Taumoepenu's sack and forced fumble, the first sack of the year for Utah.
Here is video of Paul's interception to end Utah State's scoring chance at the Utah seven-yard line.
Utah hits the road next weekend for the first time this year, taking on the Fresno State Bulldogs at 8:30 p.m. MT (7:30 p.m. PT) on CBS Sports Network.
Here is audio from Whittingham's post-game press conference
Here is audio from the players, featuring Norris, Paul, Booker, Covey, and Thompson