No. 18 Utah (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) lost for the first time in the 2016 season yesterday at Cal (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12). The Utes played a good game overall. They controlled the time of possession 42:01 to 17:59, they ran 97 plays to Cal’s 47, they out gained Cal by 80 total yards, 442 to 362, and they won the turnover battle one to zero. With all that said, how did they lose?
First, let’s start with a couple reasons that cannot be blamed for the loss. Injuries piled up for the Utes. Defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd were not available for the game. During the game, Utah also lost center J.J. Dielman, cornerback Reggie Porter, and wide receivers Kyle Fulks and Tim Patrick to injuries during the game. Despite all of these injuries, Utah was still in a position to win. After the game, Whittingham praised the players who stepped in for injured teammates. Utah has a “next man up” mentality, and the guys who stepped in as replacements all played well. At center, it took Lo Falemaka a few series to get comfortable, but he played decently the last three quarters of the game. At cornerback, Brian Allen stepped in for Porter, and while he got beat multiple times, he also recorded Utah’s lone interception of the game. He also started the first three games in place of Dominique Hatfield when he was out with an injury. Demari Simpkins, Raelon Singleton, and Tyrone Smith all had good games to replace their injured teammates at wide receiver. The injuries are certainly concerning, especially because it always seems like Utah gets decimated by injuries every season, but they should not be blamed for this loss.
Some will also point a finger at the referees for this loss. The burning of a Utah timeout when Whittingham did not want to call one was truly baffling and no doubt rattled the Utah coaches and players. However, Utah still had three shots from the two-yard line against the Pac-12’s worst rushing defense. The referees did not stop Utah three times on the goal-line. The referees also benefited Utah earlier on the drive by not calling an obvious block in the back and instead calling a 15-yard penalty on Cal, which was roughly a 30-yard swing in field position and gave Utah the ball at the Cal 49-yard line to start their final drive. Bad calls happened both ways in this game, and players need to just put that aside and make plays to overcome them.
So, what did lose the game for the Utes then?
The main one was red zone inefficiency. This has plagued Utah all season, and they are dead last in the Pac-12 in red zone scoring percentage and 10th in touchdown percentage. They were only three of five in the red zone in the game. Utah was stopped on a fourth and one at the Cal 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, and they failed to score with seven attempts with goal to go, including three from inside the Cal two-yard line. They had a drive stall at the Cal 25-yard line and had to settle for a field goal. After Allen’s interception right before the end of the first half, Utah had great field position inside Cal territory, but they could not capitalize, and Andy Phillips missed a 48-yard field goal. If Utah converts even one of the field goals for a touchdown, converts on one more red zone trip, or moves the ball better before the end of the first half to give Phillips a more makable kick, we would not be talking about a loss in this game. Utah has been poor in the red zone in every game except USC this year, and it finally cost them.
The other main problem in this game was the defense gave up far too many explosive plays. Utah may have run 50 more plays than Cal, but to use a baseball metaphor, Utah hit a bunch of singles while Cal hit a few home runs, and Cal’s home runs beat Utah’s singles. Cal’s shortest touchdown was 24 yards. They scored from 56, 40, 39, and 24 yards out, all on long touchdown throws from Cal quarterback Davis Webb. The Utah offense did a nice job limiting Cal’s time on the field, but when the Cal offense was on the field, they torched the Utah secondary for big gains. The bottom line is Cal made more with their limited offensive opportunities than Utah did with their many opportunities.
Hopefully this loss is a wake up call for the Utes. This is the second week in a row when the team was down by 14 points before they got anything going. The Utes need to start faster against the many high-powered Pac-12 offenses they will see the rest of the season. They also need to convert opportunities when they are there. Being dead last in red zone scoring percentage in the conference is not good, and it will cost the Utes more games if they do not get it fixed. Utah does not have an explosive offense, so they are going to have to drive the field with long, methodical drives to score points this season. Having a long drive come away with nothing has to be demoralizing and cannot happen consistently if Utah wants to win games against other teams in the Pac-12, most of whom have better offenses than the Utes. The defense also needs to play better. The defensive line is not getting pressure in conference games, getting just one sack a game, and the secondary has gotten torched by both USC and Cal, and the Utes rank in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in most passing defense categories in conference games. Utah has a talented team, and I honestly think this offense could be the best Utah has had since joining the Pac-12. Winning the Pac-12 South is still very much a possibility, but to do that, Utah needs to play better in pass defense and convert on opportunities when they are there, especially in the red zone.