You name it, and we've got to fix it. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Silver linings were in short supply at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday night.
The run game was anemic. The passing game was undermined by four interceptions. And the punt and kick returns were almost nonexistent.
But maybe most disappointing — or maybe most surprising — was the breakdown of Utah’s vaunted defense. Not only did the Utes surrender 345 yards of offense (205 of those rushing), they allowed 30 points.
Whatever issues Utah has had offensively, including a revolving door at offensive coordinator and treating the red zone like the Bermuda triangle, the Utes could always rely on their defense.
It’s been their calling card. Even as they struggled to establish a tradition of winning the Pac-12, opponents knew to respect the Utes' defense. The team has always played with a philosophy that could be summed up in one sentiment offered by head coach Kyle Whititngham after Arizona State’s shocking 30-10 rout of Utah on Saturday afternoon.
“If we score 10, we’ve got to hold them to nine,” he said. “That’s our mentality. If we give up 30, we’ve got to score 31. That’s how it is."
Linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga represented the defense at the postgame press conference and looked as shell-shocked as the 45,863 fans who expected a much more competitive matchup after two heartbreaking losses.
“We didn’t do our assignment to the best of our abilities,” Luafatasaga said. “That was it.”
In their three consecutive losses, Utah has struggled to live up to the moniker ‘Sack Lake City,’ although it did earn one sack Saturday, attributed to linebacker Cody Barton. Asked to diagnose the issue, Luafatasaga was as baffled as fans.
“I guess we just need to get to the quarterback,” he said. “We need to find a way to just get to him. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Whittingham offered a somber and direct assessment of his team’s performance — or the lack thereof — but his comments were infused with the kind of steely determination that has come to define the conference’s longest-tenured coach.
“Nothing positive to talk about this game,” he said. “Mitch Wishnowsky’s punting, I guess, that was a big positive. Matt Gay’s 53-yard field goal — our lone score until that last drive. But we’ve got some work to do, and we’re in a tough spot right now. We’re down and we need to pick ourselves back up and fight our way out of this or not. That’s the two alternatives right now.”
Utah’s defensive woes have been compounded by injuries to defensive end Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae, and this week linebacker Sunia Tauteoli didn’t play. Whittingham doesn’t discuss injuries or illnesses unless they’re season-ending, and while Anae played Saturday, strong safety Chase Hansen did not.
The defensive woes could get worse as Utah sustained two targeting penalties — Donavan Thompson (playing in Tauteoli’s place) and strong safety Corrion Ballard (playing in Hansen’s spot). Both of those players will not be eligible to play for the first half of the Oregon game.
Linebacker Cody Barton also left the game early, escorted by team personnel. Whittingham said he didn’t know who would be back for the team’s game at Oregon next weekend.
"Our defense played well in stretches," he said. "Again, we gave up a 94-yard drive, and just too soft against the run. Throw game didn't hurt us. It was the run, rush defense."
The coach wondered if the back-to-back losses took more of a mental toll on his players than he realized.
“There was a sneaking suspicion in my mind that you lose to two Top 25 teams by four points total, and you spill your guts and it’s emotional and there’s a tendency to let it linger. I didn’t see the ill-effects during practice. I thought we practiced well. How we practiced didn’t match up with how we played today.”
And like his players, his critique was an indictment of every aspect, every member of the team, including coaches.
“You name it,” he said, “and we’ve got to fix it.”