SAN ANTONIO — What are you doing reading this? You should be celebrating the new year, because it gives you an opportunity to focus on the upcoming football season and not how the 2019 season ended for Utah.
The Utes closed out the 2019 season with a 38-10 loss to the Texas Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. And though the team had few answers for what happened, here’s my attempt to explain some of the reasons why Utah lost in its final game of the season.
Utah didn’t want to be there
No, nobody really said that … at least openly. To chalk the game up to Utah not wanting to be in the Alamo Bowl would be the same logic as Utah not wanting to be in the Pac-12 Championship Game, because the results were similar. In both games, Utah got outplayed, outmanned and outcoached.
But senior quarterback Tyler Huntley’s comments after the game leave some doubt about Utah’s preparation going into its final game of the season against a Texas team that had nothing to lose after a 7-5 season and turnover at both coordinator positions.
“I feel like we just had great confidence those first eight games,” Huntley said, speaking about Utah’s eight-game winning streak to close out the regular season. “We were just focused, and as the year started going on, injuries and stuff like that changed our schedules and how we prepared and stuff, and I just feel like this last game we took more of a vacation than really preparing for a game. That really came to bite us in the butt.”
Utah coaches and players said they practiced hard leading up to the bowl game, but Huntley’s comments indicate the team lost the focus it maintained throughout the Pac-12 slate. And with little to show for a bowl win other than personal pride, it’s easy to see how the inner drive to push forward and fight back after Texas punched Utah in the mouth started to wane in the latter moments of the game.
Oregon beat Utah twice, and the Utes had no answer for it when things got hard.
“That eight-game stretch we had our foot on the gas pedal and took it off towards the end,” senior defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “I think that’s what it was, as far as intensity on both sides of the ball. Kind of just let off on that part.”
Trench play struggles
It all started on the offensive line for Utah. Texas stole the script from Oregon and decided to blitz on a majority of downs against Utah. And despite nearly four weeks of preparation, the Utes had no answer for the pressure attacks. Huntley had little time to develop plays and the run game failed to gain any ground.
And since Utah couldn’t get anything going to keep Texas from blitzing, there was no need to change the script. The Utes fed right into Texas’ script and allowed the Longhorns to dictate the game. It made Utah’s offense look pedestrian and insufficient — which it was — but it was in stark contrast to what the Utes ran early in the season when they had one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
“We didn’t make them pay for the amount of blitzing they were doing,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We have to be able to pick it up, get the ball down the field and make them pay. We didn’t do that. We didn’t do that and we weren’t handling the pressure like we needed to.
“The DBs were jumping on the single cuts, we needed to protect longer to get some double cuts in there and we didn’t, and that was the theme of the whole evening,” he added. “We just didn’t handle their pressure like we should have.”
The defensive line was not spared, either. After leading the country in rush defense for the season, Utah gave up 231 rushing yards and 438 total yards of offense. The line started out well and kept Texas from blowing the game open early on, but as the game progressed it started to unravel.
“Defensively, we weren’t good enough tonight,” Whittingham said. “It was special teams, offense, defense. There was no one phase that you point your finger at, and coaching; we’ve got to be better coaches.”
I won’t belabor the loss, but Utah missed out on several key opportunities. As singular events, they happen over the course of a game; but collectively, they add up to an overall missed effort in a big game.
Many players were at fault, but Devonta’e Henry-Cole missed a wide-open pass that would have gone for big yards, Josh Nurse missed a goal-line interception that would have easily been returned for a touchdown, special teams missed coverages, and eight penalties for 53 yards gave Texas everything it needed to build on its momentum.