SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It wasn't "outlined against a blue-gray October sky." And it certainly wasn't the "Four Horsemen" who ran roughshod over the 15th-ranked Utah Utes Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Rather it was an 18-year-old freshman quarterback, making his first career start for the Irish, and the Utes' own shortcomings that inflicted the decisive damage in a 28-3 loss.
"Notre Dame deserves a great deal of credit. They had a great game plan going in," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "They did what they had to do, what they needed to do to win the football game. They made the plays when they were there to be made and we weren't able to do that."
A blocked punt, two turnovers, 11 penalties and an offense that failed to score a touchdown added up to doom the Utes. After an 8-0 start to the season, they've now dropped two straight (TCU, Notre Dame) by a combined margin of 75-10.
It's the first time since 2007 that Utah has lost back-to-back games and the first time since that season that the Utes didn't score a touchdown.
The latter was foremost on Whittingham's mind in his postgame remarks.
"It was our ineptness on offense," he said. "That was the biggest factor in the game."
Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn completed 24-of-39 passes for 194 yards. He was intercepted once.
"We just didn't play well — couldn't move the ball, didn't score points, put our defense in short fields," Wynn said. "You name it. We didn't do it."
Outlined against a dark-gray November sky, which expelled raindrops throughout much of the contest, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees performed well in his starting debut. He threw three touchdown passes.
"They did a great job of putting him in positions to succeed," Whittingham said. "They didn't ask a bunch of throws of him down the field. When they did, he did a nice job."
Rees completed 13-of-20 throws for 129 yards as the Fighting Irish evened their record at 5-5. They prevailed despite finishing with fewer yards (265-256), first downs (16-13) and more than nine minutes less possession time.
Utah's final 11 series on offense, however, told the story. Six ended with punts, three on downs and two on turnovers.
"The opportunities were there. They didn't do anything to surprise us. We just didn't play good," Wynn said. "I think we just need to play better. Today was definitely a lack of execution on our part. There's nothing else to it. We've got to make plays."
Things started well for the Utes. After the defense forced a loss on downs, the offense capped its first possession with a 46-yard field goal by Joe Phillips.
The 3-0 lead held firm until 2:04 remained in the opening quarter. That's when Robert Blanton of Notre Dame crossed the goal line after blocking a punt by Sean Sellwood and returning it six yards for the score.
"The offense, we weren't exactly clicking early on. To get some help from our special teams, it really jump-started us," Rees said. "And from that point on things started clicking. It really energized the team."
Notre Dame, which added a PAT by David Ruffer, led 7-3 despite not having a single first down and just nine yards total offense.
Utah, at the time, had 74 yards and five first downs. The Utes were slowed by five penalties, a problem that grew worse before the half ended. They picked up two more in a three-play scoring drive by the Fighting Irish that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Michael Floyd with 12:25 to go in the second quarter.
Notre Dame carried the 14-3 lead into halftime.
Unfortunately for Utah, the Irish momentum extended into the third quarter. Shaky Smithson fumbled the opening kickoff when it was knocked loose by Notre Dame's Austin Collinsworth. Teammate Daniel Smith recovered it on the Utah 26.
Notre Dame cashed in a play later when Rees teamed with Duval Kamara on a scoring srike.
Less than six minutes later, the duo combined on another touchdown toss — this one a 12-yarder that helped Notre Dame's lead swell to 28-3.
Utah had a chance to respond later in the quarter, but a pass from Wynn to DeVonte Christopher on fourth-and-goal from the Notre Dame 8 fell incomplete.
The Utes never crept as close the rest of the way, although both fourth-quarter drives ended in Irish territory.
Utah's offense finished with a season-low in total offense, netting 194 yards passing and just 71 on the ground.
"We were able to control the line of scrimmage against a team that runs the ball very well. Our defensive line, in particular, played very well against the run," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "And that's the kind of football that you have to have as a winning program. You have to out-physical your opponent and be mentally tougher."141 comments on this story
Whittingham didn't think the Utes ever had control of the line of scrimmage on offense or defense.
"We just weren't productive today," he said.
As for the future, Whittingham acknowledged there are issues to work through.
The Utes close out the regular season with games at San Diego State on Saturday and at home against BYU on Nov. 27.
"We've definitely got a lot of work to do," Wynn said. "We've kind of just got to go back to square one and just start working harder, I guess."