This was a potential statement game in the making - a chance for a young but talented team to show they can play with a very good, disciplined and tough Utah team and overcome mistakes to come away with hard-fought win. Instead, they made too many mistakes and couldn't stop the Ute running game when the game was on the line, and rather than a feel-good come-from-behind win, they suffered a 34-23 loss that puts them at 4-5 for the season and just 2-4 in the conference. Bowl hopes are still alive, but less certain.
The frustration over not earning the win might obscure it, but there were some positives to take away from this game. Certainly some negatives too, but we have to remember that Utah is a pretty good team. Let's look closer at each of the position groups:
It can be hard at times to remember that Jake Browning is still a true frosh QB. With 7 starts under his belt he's no spring chicken any more, but he's still very early into his college career. And while he couldn't engineer a win in this one - and indeed, he had one of the critical mistakes that led to the loss - this was in many ways another encouraging step forward. Facing a lot of pressure from the Utah front, he was able to step up into the pocket to buy time and even showed off his legs on a couple of 3rd down scrambles to pick up first downs. Even so, he was still taken down for four sacks, including the game clincher that ended Washington's last hope for a comeback when Browning was stripped of the ball as he was hit. But when he had time (or bought himself extra time) he looked pretty good. He wasn't always helped out by his receivers - too many drops, failed blocks and mistakes, otherwise his numbers would have looked even better. But this was a legit defense he faced, and he showed he's learned some lessons in his pocket presence. That pick however was a bad mistake - he never saw the safety in the vicinity, and the result led to an easy Utah score and an early 14-3 deficit that kept the Huskies behind the 8-ball all night. He'll learn from this one, just as he showed in this one he's learned from mistakes made earlier in the season. Grade: C+
If not for a holding call that brought back a 23-yard Myles Gaskin TD that would have given Washington the lead early in the 4th quarter, we might be talking about the star performance from the true frosh RB. As it was, he had a pretty good game, especially considering how tough the sledding was in the early going. But Gaskin kept at it, using his terrific combination of patience, vision and surprising toughness to grind out 93 yards on his 20 carries, including 1 TD that wasn't called back. The Huskies busted out a new look with Gaskin as a wildcat QB and had some success in it, including that 10-yard TD that brought the Huskies to within 4 points midway through the 4th quarter. Dwayne Washington had a boom-or-bust game, sometimes on the same play. He picked up 55 yards on just 6 carries, but two fumbles in the 2nd quarter - the first on a 5-yard reception that would have gone for a 1st down, the second at the end of a 3-yard reception - were absolute killers, especially the 2nd one which was returned 55 yards for Utah's 3rd TD of the night. Those helped drag down what otherwise was a pretty good performance by the backs on the night. Grade: C+
Two steps forward, and one (maybe one-and-a-half) back for this group. There were some nice plays out there - Josh Perkins exploiting a miscue in the Ute secondary to go 53 yards to set up a TD, Drew Sample picking up a 23 yard gain on Washington's first play and then catching his 2nd TD on the season, and some nice plays by Dante Pettis, Brayden Lenius and Jaydon Mickens. But those were balanced out by too many drops, both from true frosh Chico McClatcher and senior leaders Mickens and Perkins. Pettis was unable to come up with a TD grab on a nice throw by Browning in the 3rd, and didn't have the presence of mind to throw the ball away on a busted trick play, instead taking an 8-yard loss in the 2nd quarter which helped force the Huskies to settle for a FG on a promising drive. Perkins did have what should have been a huge 21-yard reception to convert a first down and put the Huskies inside Utah territory midway through the 4th quarter as the Huskies trailed by just 1, but the refs thought they saw offensive PI (there certainly was no evidence from the replays shown in the stadium) and instead it was a 36-yard swing and helped kill momentum when it seemed the Huskies were on the verge of taking control of the game. There were also multiple whiffed blocks on the edge on attempted bubble screens and tunnel screens. These guys are not doing enough to help out their talented but young QB, and it's surprising no big-time WR recruits have given their commitment, because it's obvious there's playing time to be had out there. Grade: C-
This was not an easy task, not against a big, physical and effective Utah front. They had their hands full all night and it showed, as Browning was frequently under pressure and the line struggled early to open up much running room for the backs. While the pass-blocking remained iffy all night, the run-blocking did show improvement over the course of the game as they ran a lot of power and steadily improved their execution. However the biggest run of the night (in terms of impact) was called-back due to a hold on Coleman Shelton, a play that would have given the Huskies the lead. This was a good measuring-stick kind of game, particularly for the OL, and while they didn't win the battle (or the game), you could see that they're not that far off. Requiring patience isn't fun, but with this crew you can see signs that the payoff could be worth it. Grade: C
For as well as the Huskies managed last week after losing Elijah Qualls early, this was a game where he was clearly missed. Greg Gaines fought hard out there and wasn't bad by any means, but the DL looked to be a bit worn down at the end of the game, and there's no doubt a rotation of Qualls being spelled by Gaines is better at this point in time than Gaines being spelled by Vita Vea. Utah was able to keep control in this game by leaning on their running game and the mobility of QB Travis Wilson, no more so than late in the 4th quarter when they drove for their last TD to expand their lead to 8 and put the Huskies on their heels. That 9-play drive consisted of nothing but runs as they covered 60 yards, and it was hard not to think that the Husky D was beat-up and tired by that point. Gaines did his level best, leading the team with his 10 tackles and Tani Tupou chipped-in 6 tackles including 2 TFL, but too often they were a step late in sealing off a running lane for Devontae Booker or getting their hands on Wilson as the Utes rushed for 191 yards on 45 carries. Grade: C+
As great as this group looked last week, they were subpar vs. Utah. Too often they had poor leverage or took poor angles against the Utes and struggled to wrap-up and bring down Booker without allowing several yards after contact, or failed to get their hands on Wilson on the pass rush and lost contain on him. Azeem Victor dropped a pass that hit him right in the chest near the Utah goal line, missing a great chance to notch a pick-6 and close the deficit to 4 on the first drive of the 2nd half for the Utes. It wasn't all bad certainly - Feeney was Johnny-on-the-spot on a botched snap that Wilson couldn't corral and hand a nice tip at the line-of-scrimmage a Wilson pass attempt, and the LB group was key on a number of 3rd down stops. But this was not the high level of play we've grown accustomed to seeing from these guys this year, and they'll have to bounce back next week in Tempe to give the Dawgs a chance. Grade: C
While it was obviously a tough blow to lose Budda Baker early in the game from a friendly-fire shot to the head, the secondary played well and helped limit Wilson to just 12 of 25 pass attempts. Sidney Jones played a terrific game with a fantastic play on a pass break-up and also picking up his 3rd interception of the year to give the Huskies the ball back down just 1 in the 4th quarter. returned from an injury and had a nice pass break-up, and he and Gardnehire were playing well in coverage most of the night. Brian Clay was solid and Jojo McIntosh played reasonably well in place of Baker. While they had some issues with little jitterbug Britain Covey, they did a pretty good job of limiting the effectiveness of the Utah passing game, though they also had some problems in run support in wrapping up. Grade: B+
Cameron Van Winkle was big tonight, nailing all three of his FG attempts, none of the gimmies. Tristan Vizcaino did a good job with kickoffs with 3 of his 6 going for touchbacks and the Husky coverage units were generally solid. McClatcher clearly represented a threat to Utah in the kickoff return game and they quickly shifted to a pooch kick approach which consistently gave the Huskies pretty good field position. Where things broke down was in the punting game. First - and worst - was a bad snap on the first Husky punt that Korey Durkee couldn't corral, leading to excellent field position for the Utes which they converted for a TD and a lead they would never relinquish. Vizcaino replaced Durkee after that and he averaged just 39 yards on his 3 punts. The Huskies were also unable to do anything with Utah's punts as he was successful in kicking away from the returners or with punts they simply couldn't field cleanly. Grade: D+
A recurring theme throughout the season has been the resilience of this team - no matter what adversity they have throughout the course of a game, they have avoided being blown-out (though you could argue about the Stanford game) and aside from that Stanford game have been in a position in each loss where they had a chance (or chances) to win. Some of that credit has to go to the coaching staff and the mental approach they teach these kids, as well as the terrific play of the defense.
The offense obviously couldn't repeat the success of last week, nor did anybody really expect that facing off against a much tougher defense. But you could see that the Huskies had a pretty solid gameplan in place and were able to exploit some issues in the Utah secondary and generate a solid running game. Where things seemed to fall apart though was Smith's tendency to get too cute too often. After a brief window of success last week, the "Lindcat" resumed being a consistent failure against Utah, and unless the staff is willing to actually dial up some passes when Lindquist is in there, they need to cool it with this look and stop taking Browning out of the game. The straight-up wildcat introduced this game with Gaskin worked better, including his 10-yard TD run but by the 3rd time they ran it Utah had caught on ("Brostek is in? They're running wildcat!"). Add in the failed reverse/throw-back to Browning with Pettis and it felt like the Huskies tried too hard to create with gimmick plays despite the conventional offense finding a fair amount of success.
Defensively this was a good showing for most of the game, but they looked tired at the end and they never did have a good answer for the speed-option plays as Wilson burned them repeatedly in key situations.
But this loss wasn't really about play-calling so much as it was just about poor execution at key moments leading to crucial mistakes - the bad punt snap, D. Washington's two fumbles, Jake's pick, a holding call that negated a big TD run, dropped passes. Some can probably be chalked up to youth, some to the weather and some to the random variability. But there will be some critical fundamentals that you can bet the coaching staff will be re-emphasizing with the team in the wake of this one. Grade: C+