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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Cougar players celebrate after an interception late in the game as Utah and Washington State play a College football game at Rice Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
It’s tough to overcome minus-4. We were on the wrong end of that by a long shot. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on the turnover margin

SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t matter that the Utah football team actually outgained the prolific Washington State offense, thanks to a strong effort by the Ute defense Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

As Ute coach Kyle Whittingham always says — and he said it again after the 33-25 loss — “the most important stat in football other than the score is the turnover margin.”

While the Utes lost by eight points, they lost the turnover margin by five, giving up seven turnovers, four interceptions and three fumbles, compared to two for Washington State. Whittingham acknowledged that the final turnover, when Troy Williams entered the game for a gassed Troy Huntley to throw a Hail Mary pass from midfield, shouldn’t really count on the turnover total. Still, a minus-4 in turnover margin is too much to overcome for the best of teams.

“It’s tough to overcome minus-4,” Whittingham said. “We were on the wrong end of that by a long shot.”

The Utes haven’t been that bad this season in the turnover department with 16 in nine previous games, ranking in a tie for third in the Pac-12 in turnover margin and 32nd in the country. But the Utes couldn’t stop turning the ball over, from the first quarter when they coughed it up three times to the final minute when two late passes were picked off.

The first turnover came less than three minutes into the game when Demari Simpkins fumbled after a 20-yard gain on a pass from Tyler Huntley. That led to a WSU touchdown, putting the Utes in a hole they tried to climb out of all game long.

On Utah’s next possession, Huntley was intercepted by Robert Taylor inside Utah territory. This time the Ute defense held the Cougars to a field goal.

Then on the next Ute possession, Huntley fumbled while being sacked and WSU recovered at the Utah 19. Again the defense held the Cougars to a field goal and the Utes trailed 13-0 with just under four minutes left in the first quarter.

As Whittingham put it later, “The first quarter was a disaster.”

Turnover number four was on Utah’s first play of the second half, after the Utes had picked off WSU quarterback Luke Falk. Huntley’s pass was intercepted by Hunter Dale and returned 34 yards to the Utah 12, from where the Cougars added another field goal.

Early in the fourth quarter Zack Moss fumbled deep in Utah territory and the Cougars needed to go just 14 yards for a touchdown to make it 33-18.

“We did not do a good job of keeping the ball,” said Huntley. “Washington State did a nice job of taking the ball from us. Give it to them, they played a great game.”

Late in the game, the Utes were trying to drive for the tying touchdown and two-point conversion, but with 58 seconds left, Huntley’s pass over the middle was tipped by Nnamdi Oguayo and picked off by Chima Onyeukwu.

Because the Utes had three timeouts left, when the defense held, the Utes had one final shot. Huntley drove his team to midfield and after a 31-yard run up the sidelines, he was replaced by Williams, whose desperation pass was intercepted in the end zone.