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Utah opens Pac-12 play with a 24-13 win over WSU

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the Utes are 1-0 in Pac-12 play and that’s what’s important at the end of the day. It wasn’t real pretty for a lot of the game, but they got it done.

The Utes struggled mightily on offense for a large chunk of the game, specifically the first half. In the first half, they only had about 100 yards of total offense, and almost all of that was on their last drive of the half went 80 yards on six plays for a score, almost all on the ground. The offense got things rolling with Cam Rising getting out of the pocket and pick up 30 yards on the ground, and then was given 15 more after a face mask by WSU. Then it was a sequence of Bernard, Covey, and Ja’Quinden Jackson on the next four plays to punch the ball into the end zone to take the 7-3 lead. Jackson, the new backup QB, was put in as a wildcat QB and did a nice job picking up yards.

Coming out of the halftime break it felt like the offense, coming off that scoring drive, was going to be able to assert themselves, but on the opening play of the half, Micah Bernard put the ball on the turf turning the ball over and giving WSU prime field position. Thus this would kick off the ultimate story of the game — fumbles.

From a high level, the Utes had 250 yards of offense in the second half. The offense didn’t punt at all in the second half. The Utes were in scoring position, inside the 10-yard line three times, and came away with zero points.

After WSU scored after recovering the Utah fumble the Utes drove down the field on 12 plays to kick a 28-yard field goal. TJ Pledger started to get rolling and Rising was robbing the middle of the field with the tight ends. The drive did stall out at the 11 resulting in the field goal by Redding.

After an incredible INT by Devin Lloyd, the Utes took over at WSU’s 19 but fumbled two plays later at the eight-yard line when Jackson was trying to battle closer to the end zone. Utah’s next offensive possession went nine plays and 41 yards, got to the eight-yard line again, but stalled and then Redding missed a field goal.

The next drive by the offense was highlighted by a Pledger 59 yard run, which would end up at the one-yard line. After Chris Curry couldn’t put it in, he got another chance and fumbled the ball into the endzone where WSU would recover for the touchback.

Are you kidding me?

After a three-and-out by WSU, Covey fielded a punt and he put the ball on the ground too, but fortunately, it rolled out of bounds. If Covey is putting it on the ground then there is something weird going on in the world. This drive, however, would go a different way than the previous ones as the offense went eight plays for 72 yards, with Pledger picking up about half of those yards throughout the drive, and he capped it off with a 20-yard touchdown run.

Basically, after a very anemic offensive attack in the first half, the Utes were moving the ball almost at will against WSU but left 20+ points on the field. The Utes, officially, put the ball on the ground seven times, but I saw the ball pop out a few more times. I think the last time I saw something like this happen was against BYU in 2016, where the Utes turned the ball over like six times.

Let’s talk about the defense. It was a bit of a tale of two halves for that side of the ball. In the first half, they were the definition of bending and not breaking. WSU was in scoring position multiple times, and either the Utes would force a pick, or they’d force a field goal attempt. Utah was playing a lot of zone in the first half and they’d lose the wide receivers downfield and it was a lot of pitch and catch for WSU as they moved up and down the field. In the second half, it was a vintage Utah defensive performance, outside of the touchdown pass after the Bernard fumble.

On top of all those punts and the three total interceptions (one in the first half, two in the second), Utah also had eight sacks. We’ve been wanting some havoc plays and we got them today. Utah kept WSU behind the sticks for much of the second half, and then when the Cougs had to pass after Utah’s touchdown to take the lead Clark Phillips came down with an interception of his own and took it back for six. Phillips now has two pick-sixes against WSU in as many games.

On the game, the Utes held WSU to 318 yards, turned them over three times, and sacked them eight times. That’s a nice overall performance by the defense.

Some key takeaways? Well, I think the offensive line improved, and the Utes got some momentum on that side of the ball in the second half. They just need to hold onto the ball. The line still is a work in progress, for sure, but I some progress there. The Utes need to settle the running game because that’s so important to this offense. Bernard went out with an injury, and all the other backs put the ball on the ground. Pledger may be the answer, but we need a guy that is consistent. The offense also needs to find a way to get the wide receivers involved more, and getting the running game consistent will be big there. Overall, I like the offensive improvements, but they must take care of the ball security, and continue to improve on the line.

On defense, they need to tighten up the back end a bit more, because USC’s big wideouts can feast. They also need to get healthy. Three safeties went down today, and Sewell needs to get healthy. This bye week will be huge.

The next game for the Utes is the Trojans in LA, after this bye week. And as Coach Whitt said after the game this bye week couldn’t come at a better time. They need to heal up, continue to work on the offensive line and continue to get Rising comfortable.

While it was ugly, there was plenty to like, but they still have quite a ways to go.