SALT LAKE CITY — Instead of being a Pac-12 showdown between undefeated teams, Saturday night’s game was a battle to stay relevant.
Washington State and Utah entered the game with wounded egos after demoralizing upset losses the week before, armed with the knowledge that another loss would severely hamper any conference hopes after promising starts to the season.
And the survivor was … Utah.
The Utes (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) racked up 526 yards and defeated Washington State 38-13 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, sending the Cougars (3-2) to 0-2 in the Pac-12.
“You saw a very tough football team play a very soft football team,” said WSU coach Mike Leach. “If we get any resistance, we fold. … They’re fat, dumb, happy and entitled.”
Defense struggles mightily — again
After WSU allowed 67 points, 657 yards and two return touchdowns last week to UCLA, the big question was how would the Cougars respond after that embarrassing performance.
Utah, like UCLA the week before, did not have a great offensive resume coming into the game, but moved up and down the field seemingly at will. The Utes racked up 225 yards and two touchdowns in their first three drives, and the Utes should have had TDs on all of their first possessions but Demari Simpkins dropped a pass while all alone in the end zone.
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley had 242 yards passing in the first half, 30 yards more than his per-game average entering the game.
WSU trailed 21-13 at halftime and the second half wasn’t much better. The Utes chewed up time and yardage with two methodical drives in the third quarter to expand their lead to 31-13.
Much of the focus will be on the safeties, who were out of position on several long pass plays, but the defensive line and linebackers weren’t great either. Huntley had too much time to throw and took advantage of wide-open running lanes, including on a 15-yard TD run late in the first half.
There is no doubt the Cougars sorely miss safety Jalen Thompson, who was ruled ineligible for his senior season. Would not be surprised to see Skyler Thomas, who moved from safety to nickelback this year, go back to safety.
“We weren’t even close,” Leach said of Utah’s long passing plays. “We go out there and play street ball and doing our thing and we don’t listen to the coaches’ calls.”
Offense meets its match
WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon put up remarkable numbers the first four games, but that was against New Mexico State, Northern Colorado, Houston and UCLA. There was no doubt Utah would be the best defense he had faced, with the Utes entering the game allowing just 275 yards a game.
Utah slowed Gordon and the Cougars in the first half, then shut them out in the second half. WSU was held to 313 yards overall.
Gordon’s final numbers (30 of 49 for 252 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions) were not good, and with the defense having trouble getting stops, he has to be very good for WSU to win games.
“He played about like the others, but he didn’t pout,” Leach said.
The defense might be the biggest issue for WSU, but the offense needs to regroup too.
“We left a lot of plays and a lot of yards out there,” Gordon said.
After a bye week, the schedule gets pretty tough, starting with a trip to Arizona State. The Cougars will almost certainly be an underdog against the once-beaten Sun Devils and if the games were played today, the Cougars would not be expected to beat Cal, Oregon and Washington as well.
Home games against Colorado and Stanford aren’t gimmes either, not with the defense struggling so much.
Leach has proved doubters wrong the past few seasons, but the challenge ahead seems daunting. And the biggest issues are on the side of the ball that he doesn’t pay much attention to.
So the onus will be on defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to turn things around. And he has an extra week to do it.