SALT LAKE CITY — Utah learned another painful lesson in its assimilation to Pac-12 football. Saturday’s 20-19 loss to 23rd-ranked Arizona State at Rice-Eccles Stadium left the Utes understandably upset. They squandered a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“In the Pac-12 you better be ready to compete every week and finish every week, which we didn’t do,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who expressed disappointment that the Utes were unable to protect their two-score lead over the final 15 minutes. “ It’s not a one-sided reason as to why we lost the game, it was a team effort.”
Whittingham added that they’ve “got to be able to finish.”
A last-ditch attempt to do so, however, fell by the wayside when All-American defensive lineman Will Sutton intercepted a pass by quarterback Travis Wilson on the Utah 23 with just 19 seconds remaining.
Just over a minute earlier, ASU’s Robert Nelson ended another drive by the Utes with an interception. Before that pick, the Sun Devils scored what proved to be the game-winner on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Kelly to Richard Smith.
Early in the quarter, Kelly scored on a two-yard run and Zane Gonzalez added the PAT to make it 19-14.
Utah led 9-7 at halftime. The loss ended a run of 49 consecutive halftime leads that resulted in a victory, the second-longest active streak in the nation — dating back to a win at New Mexico in 2006.
It was the fourth-quarter collapse, though, that left the Utes hurting.
“That was really disappointing,” Whittingham said.
It spoiled an otherwise strong performance by the Utah defense. ASU’s high-powered offense was kept in check until the end. The Sun Devils came in averaging 46.6 points per game.
“We missed some assignments, missed some tackles and it cost us,” defensive end Trevor Reilly said of the late shortfall. “That’s the second or third game we’ve let go in the fourth quarter. We’ve just got to be tougher when it comes down to the end.
“It’s such a hard one,“ he added of the close bid to defeat a second nationally ranked team at home this season.
Utah defeated No. 5 Stanford 27-21 on Oct. 12. Since then, though, the Utes have lost three straight games and fallen to 4-5 overall and 1-5 in Pac-12 play — assuring themselves of a third consecutive losing conference season since joining the league in 2011.
“We have to be tougher and we have to finish,” said linebacker Jason Whittingham. “We know what we had to do to win, we just didn’t do it.”
The sophomore discounted any notion that the defense played well for Utah to win.
“We only had one turnover, and that’s not going to get it done often,” he said.
The offense, meanwhile, punted three times and turned the ball over twice in the pivotal fourth quarter. Despite five possessions, the Utes ran only 13 plays — going three-and-out on the drives than didn’t result in interceptions.
“We needed to make plays and we didn’t,” said Wilson, who explained that everything seemed to fade in the fourth quarter.
Wide receiver Dres Anderson said the 19-7 lead that the Utes built over the first three quarters didn’t really matter because they didn’t finish the game off right and lost.
Now comes a trip to No. 6 Oregon this Saturday. The Ducks are coming off their first loss of the season, a 26-20 setback at Stanford.
“We’re going to bounce back. That’s what we’re going to do,” Anderson said. “I don’t care who we’re playing. We’re going to play our hearts out no matter who we play. So we’re going to bounce back.”
These, though, are tough times for the Utes. They need two more wins to become bowl eligible. The season-ending schedule includes trips to Oregon and Washington and then a finale at home against Colorado.
“We just have to stick together as a family. We’re a family in that locker room and we just have to band together. If we want to have a good end to the season we’ve got to put this one behind us,” said Jason Whittingham. “Something bad happened today. But we’ve got to put it behind us and learn from it. Hopefully, just work as hard as we can this week and finish the season out right for those seniors.”
EXTRA POINTS: Wilson led the Utes with 44 yards rushing. Bubba Poole and Kelvin York finished with 43 and 39, respectively. Anderson had four catches for 100 yards. Sean Fitzgerald was the only other Ute to make a reception. He had two for 21 yards. Both receivers scored touchdowns. Punter Tom Hackett had his career-best 70-yard punt in the third quarter. Andy Phillips made a 51-yard field goal in the second quarter, the longest kick of his career. Jason Whittingham had a career-high 14 tackles to lead the defense. The Utes sacked Kelly six times. Whittingham and Reilly topped the team with 2.5 tackles-for-loss. Wilson has now been intercepted 16 times this season, all in Pac-12 play. ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach predicts Utah will face North Carolina in the AdvoCare V100 (Independence) Bowl in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 31.
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