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SALT LAKE CITY -- Coming off a three-game consecutive-winning streak, the University of Utah entered Saturday's game against the Washington State Cougars hoping to extend their win streak for a slim chance at the Pac-12 Championship game. And in a hard-fought battle, coming down to the end in overtime, the Utes pulled off the win, beating the Cougars 30-27.
With a chance to win the game in overtime, Coleman Petersen stepped it up and put the ball through the uprights for a 38-yard field goal and the win. And it is special teams that should be credited for Utah's win against Washington State, with Coleman Petersen adding to Utah's scores with a 33- yard field goal and a 45-yard field goal.
But it was the play of punter Sean Sellwood that helped the Utes turn around a poor offensive first-half performance. Facing fourth down before halftime, Sellwood was called on to fake a punt, connecting with Luke Matthews for a 49-yard touchdown and the lead.
Prior to the season, the special teams was expected to be a weak aspect of a team entering the Pac-12. And a botched field goal against USC in week two of the season only exacerbated the conception. However, special teams has proved the doubters wrong and has been a great option to putting points on the board and giving opponents a long field to work with.
The Utes offense struggled -- to say the least -- to make things happen against the Cougars in the first half. The offense reverted back to the offense that played against Arizona State, Washington and Cal, playing with several penalties and failing to move the chains. Had it not been for a fake punt by Sean Sellwood and his pass to Luke Matthews, Utah's offense would have mustered up few yards in the first half. In fact, Utah had only 107 yards of total offense in the first half.
In the second half, however, the Utes hit their stride, relying upon the pass game to move the offense, as well as the run game of John White IV. Hays, who struggled to move the offense in the first half, managed a strong eight- of-10 passes in the second half for 106 passing yards.
The Utah defense came out strong in the first half, holding freshman quarterback Connor Holliday to only 125 yards after his spectacular performance last week against Arizona State. The Cougars were forced to punt the ball on several series, in addition to the three interceptions forced by the defense.
But in the second half, the Utah defense played soft, with a prevent defensive scheme, giving Holliday an open field to work with and a chance to win the game. The letdown by the defense was unexpected given the pressure they were putting on Holliday in the first half. It was unusual for the offense to pick up their game in the second half, while the defense completely shut down. If the team could work together on both sides of the ball, the Utes could be a much better team, even with the struggles they have faced this season.
However, the defense should be credited for keeping Washington State out of the end zone in the final seconds of the game, forcing the Cougars to kick a field goal. Additionally, the pressure they put on Holliday in overtime was nothing short of excellent.
Although the score will dictate the conversation over the coming week, the undisciplined nature of the Utah team needs to be addressed, and it is expected head coach Kyle Whittingham will make his voice heard in the upcoming practices. In the first half alone, Utah had seven penalties for 70 yards, but ended the game with 11 penalties for a total of 105. Utah is lucky the Cougars offense could not put more points on the board.
The occasional false start penalty is not the issue here, it is the unnecessary personal foul penalties that hurt the Utes. There is no reason these penalties should consistently be called. It is understandable players want to play tough, but tough play can be accomplished without the penalties.
Although an extremely slight possibility -- given Arizona State loses Saturday night -- Utah still has a chance to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship Game if they beat Colorado next week. Even if Utah fails to make it that far, credit should be given to the coaches and players for turning around a seemingly lost season.
With an offense that has struggled to put points on the board, Utah has made a good season in their first year in the Pac-12. Utah has proven they can play in a conference where the competition is tough. Although the Utes lost to teams like USC and Arizona State, the optimism about the season is high. Competition will only increase in the coming years as Utah will be expected to compete against Oregon and similar teams, but there is a sign of progress if Utah can go 8-4 in regulation and win their bowl game.