SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Same story, different setting.
Utah was once again bested by the Washington Huskies in another close finish, losing 10-3 in the Pac-12 Championship game Friday. The Huskies claim an 11-1 series record against the Utes and now have a Rose Bowl honor to hang over Utah.
And while the Huskies are deserving of the series record, it’s another missed opportunity for the Utes in a game they could have claimed. But offensive woes and multiple turnovers ultimately doomed Utah.
Here are three takeaways from Utah’s loss.
Let’s start with a positive because it’s always easier to focus on the negatives — the areas where a team missed — when a team loses.
Point blank, Utah’s defense battled it out with another premier defense in a worthy matchup. The two schools didn’t allow an offensive touchdown and limited each other’s best attempts to put points on the board. Even when Washington went for it multiple times on fourth down deep inside Utah territory, Utah’s defense stood tall and stopped the Huskies from scoring anything more than a single field goal.
Utah held Washington to 306 total yards of offense and limited a deadly running back in Myles Gaskin. The powerful leader of the offense only managed 71 rushing yards on 23 attempts for an average of 3.1 yards per carry. In total, Utah held Washington to only 119 yards rushing and forced the Huskies to beat them elsewhere.
Utah dialed up a brilliant game plan against the Huskies and limited their biggest strengths. They put pressure on quarterback Jake Browning and forced him to make rushed throws. The Utes had three defenders record double-digit tackles — Chase Hansen (13), Corrion Ballard (12) and Cody Barton (12) — and kept the Huskies on their toes.
Guys like Jaylon Johnson locked up receivers and Mika Tafua, Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu put pressure on Browning to dominate the game. All in all, it was a phenomenal performance by Utah’s defense despite the loss.
Jason Shelley was outmatched
The redshirt freshman has done a great job in the final stretch of the season to even get Utah to the Pac-12 Championship game. But facing one of the best defenses in the country, Shelley looked like a player still trying to gather his senses. That’s not to say Shelley is a bad quarterback, it’s that he’s just never been forced into a situation against a defense like the Huskies.
Shelley finished the game throwing for 137 yards and three interceptions on 17-of-27 passing. One of those interceptions is difficult to blame on Shelley when a fluke dropped pass bounced off Siaosi Mariner and was returned 66 yards for a touchdown. The other two interceptions, though, were based on a young quarterback trying to force passes.
Shelley’s second interception of the night came on a lobbed pass to Solomon Enis deep down the field. It was a novel effort to try for the big play that would have given Utah a likely touchdown, but there was too much lift on the ball and the defender was able to jump the route and pick it off before Enis could get to it.
It’s a tough situation for a young quarterback to be leading a team in the Pac-12 Championship game. While the result wasn’t in Utah’s favor Friday night, Shelley still has promise and deserves credit for leading the team to the title game. He’ll only get better moving forward and will have experience against one of the best defenses in the country.
Offensive play-calling lacked diversity
While not completely offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s fault, the offensive play-calling lacked diversity and was relatively vanilla against the Huskies. The game plan seemed to be dialed down to limit mistakes and to take advantage of short gain. The problem was the short gains were little to be found.
Utah got little push in the run game and receivers struggled to pull down several deep passes that could have flipped the script on the game. This handicapped Taylor’s ability to open up the playbook and put Utah in a position to win. Still, the play-calling played to Washington’s strengths and forced Utah into several three-and-outs.
For the first time in the season, Utah is starting to really show its problems on offense due to injured personnel. Utah did struggle against the Huskies in their first matchup, but having a veteran quarterback and powerful running back leading the offense makes a big difference in Taylor’s ability to open up the play-calling.