SALT LAKE CITY — Utah seemed determined to gift this one to Washington State.
But the Cougars wouldn’t oblige. When the Utes blundered, WSU made sure not to capitalize.
The visiting Cougs out-errored Utah offensively and fell completely flat down the stretch in a 24-13 loss Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“The whole offense, we need to look at — coaches included,” second-year Cougars boss Nick Rolovich said. “We need to get better.”
Utah scored 14 points in the final five minutes to beat the Cougs despite its own offensive ineptitudes.
The Utes fumbled the ball an absurd seven times, losing possession on three of them — all in the second half.
WSU (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) tallied just one touchdown off those takeaways, going three-and-out on the other two opportunities.
The Cougars, who lost star running back Max Borghi to an apparent wrist injury in the second quarter, were outgaining Utah 212-96 at halftime, yet trailed 7-6.
The Utes (2-2, 1-0) had only managed 31 yards before their final series of the first half. WSU mustered just 106 yards after the break against 254 for Utah.
The hosts started sluggish, punting on three straight possessions to open the game. They also missed a chip-shot field goal in the third quarter.
Like a game of hot potato, WSU’s offense would hold the ball and momentum briefly before tossing it back to Utah’s side.
“We need to get more explosive in this offense because right now we’re just 4-yard throws, 4-yard runs, and that’s not how we’re built to go,” Rolovich said. “We’ve got to really get back and take a good look at ourselves.”
Ron Stone Jr. blasted Utah quarterback Cam Rising, knocking the ball loose on the Utes’ first play of the third quarter. Just afterward, Cougars quarterback Jarrett Guarantano — starting in place of injured sophomore Jayden de Laura — fired the first touchdown pass of his WSU career to true freshman De’Zhaun Stribling, who was wide open for a 26-yard score.
“Coming out of the half, getting a turnover, getting a touchdown, I thought we had taken a step, we were going to finish the game,” Rolovich said. “We just weren’t able to do it.”
WSU’s seven possessions that followed featured an interception, three quick punts and two turnovers on downs.
It was a familiar sight for a team that’s been known to squander chances in seizing the momentum and collapsing in crunch time. The Cougs have been outscored 181-69 in second halves over eight games under Rolovich. They went lifeless on offense last weekend against USC and conceded 38 unanswered points after the break.
Rolovich called his run-and-shoot offense “anemic” against Utah.
“(Utah) brought a little more pressure in the second half in strategic situations, but it’s not any excuse for us not being able to move the ball,” said Rolovich, whose team surrendered a whopping eight sacks. “We need to take a hard look at ourselves as offensive coaches. Six points at the half and 13 points total is not good.”
Guarantano passed 9 of 17 for 93 yards and two interceptions in the second half after a commendable start. In total, he went 25 of 36 for 248 yards with a touchdown and three picks. Guarantano had pressure in his face often, but he held onto the ball too long on a few of the sacks.
WSU put the nail in its coffin with about two minutes to play. On a fourth-and-eight play near midfield, Guarantano tossed an errant pass directly to Utah cornerback Clark Phillips, who soared down the near sideline, then cut into the open field for a 54-yard touchdown.
On WSU’s second drive of the day, Guarantano threw his first pick. He didn’t see a linebacker playing zone underneath, and gave it away at the Utes’ 12-yard line.
The Cougars got into Utah territory on their first three series, yet came away with three points.
“It’s just missed opportunities,” Cougars tackle Abraham Lucas said. “As a team, we’re very raw. Raw is a good thing, because it can be pressed into a diamond, but it takes a lot of time.”
The Cougars had drives of eight, 10, 11 and 13 plays in the first half. They were dominating the time-of-possession column.
But none of their drives after intermission lasted more than six snaps. The Utes, meanwhile, found their footing on the ground. They racked up 212 rushing yards on 33 attempts for an average of 6.5 yards per try.
Nevertheless, it was probably the finest overall performance of the season for WSU’s defense, and it was wasted by the Cougs’ uninspired offense.
“They played good enough for us to win that game,” Rolovich said.
The Cougars defense gave up only one methodical possession — the Utes’ last one of the game. Utah went 72 yards on eight plays and capped it off with a 20-yard scoring burst up the gut from T.J. Pledger.
Owing to its offense’s short-lived drives, the WSU defense was clearly gassed. But it consistently held Utah at bay.
At the end of a lengthy Utes series, WSU safety Daniel Isom prevented a TD from the Cougars’ 1-yard line early in the fourth, meeting the Utes’ Chris Curry with a big hit to force a fumble and preserve WSU’s 13-10 advantage.
Midway through the third, linebacker Travion Brown — who recovered the aforementioned fumble — ripped the ball away from run-minded backup Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson at WSU’s 8-yard line.
Cornerback Jaylen Watson jumped on it. Seconds earlier, Guarantano had been picked on a screen attempt by Utes stalwart Devin Lloyd. The preseason All-American linebacker read the play perfectly and tipped the pass up and to himself.
Rising (13 of 23, 137 yards) never really looked comfortable. He settled primarily for dump-offs outside and short hitch routes over the middle to his tight ends.
“Other games, we might have had our production and things like that earlier in the game, but kind of taper off,” Stone said. “As a whole, our defense really buckled down and played all four quarters of this game.”
The same can’t be said for the Cougars offense, which seemed determined to let the mistake-prone Utes have this one.
“We have to be able to finish,” Lucas said. “With about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, our hands were up in the air a little bit.”