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Utes football at a crossroads after a 'very poorly' played rivalry game

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) sprints as BYU defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) sprints as BYU defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah got beat at its own game.

For the first time in a decade, Utah entered the rivalry outmatched in almost all facets of the game.

That's not to say Utah hasn't had struggles against BYU over the years — seven of the last nine ahead of Saturday were decided by one possession — but there was almost always a momentum shift and an opportunity for Utah to show its dominance and ran away with a victory; a moment to showcase its overall growing talent.

That didn't come Saturday night — not in an environment where every fan in attendance believed the streak was coming to an end the second they entered LaVell Edwards Stadium. The energy was unmatched and the Cougars fed off the ever-present vibe, starting with head coach Kalani Sitake.

There were brief glimpses where Utah looked like it had turned some sort of corner in a maze of confusion — like a house of mirrors — but all were met with a wall, a figurative dam in the way of any positives the team had.

The line of scrimmage was exploited and overrun, and Utah couldn't sustain a drive on offense and couldn't get off the field on defense until BYU was ready for Utah to have the ball back, in particular late in the game. It's the way Utah should have played and has played against BYU since joining the Pac-12.

BYU beat them at their own game.

"Short version is they played well and we played very poorly," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday morning.

It was a fortuitous week for the Cougars, but the fact remains that BYU was the better team. They deservedly won the game and broke the streak ahead of a two-year pause in the rivalry. And while the loss does little in terms of Utah's goals for the season — a South division title being the first one — it serves as a wake-up call to the program in need of some immediate change.

No, it's not time to think about moving on from certain coaches; it's time for a wake-up call — an early-season jumpstart to the season.

"We've got to keep moving on," said redshirt freshman Micah Bernard, who emerged as a the top running back option with a game-high 146 yards and one touchdown. "You can't dwell on the past; this is in the past now. We'll get to work next week."

It's just one game, but a game that can serve as a prototype to how Utah needs to improve or risk a much different season than was predicted. Utah faced adversity and didn't handle it well. The mistakes that were apparent in Game 1 were still there in Game 2 — just magnified on a much larger stage.

"On offense, our main issue was mental mistakes; we didn't get beat physically — we blew assignments way too often on offense, particularly up front," Whittingham said after watching the game back. "Defense was the opposite. We were assignment sound but we just got physically moved around and worn out.

"When the first two (possessions) are turnovers and the third one's a three-and-out, and the beginning of the second half is a three-and-out, and then you have a critical holding call and some blown assignments that mess up a lot, there's not many drives left," Whittingham added. "I mean, your chances to score are so minimized."

Much of those problems on offense come from the team not getting into a rhythm, according to Whittingham. The timing is off and the team isn't ready to go before the play clock ticks down to zero. As a result, all the preparation leading up to the week is thrown out the window as the players rush to get set and remember the play call.

"We're pressing the clock too much, not getting out of the huddle in time — it seems like we're scrambling to get out of the huddle and get the play call and everything's got to be more in sync," he said.

On defense, Utah has to find a way to return to its MO — an all-out pursuit to crash the offense.

The defensive line, in particular, prides itself on creating havoc plays — getting to the QB — but Utah had trouble against BYU, in particular in the second half. It was as if they knew BYU quarterback Jaren Hall was mobile and they were hesitant to overpursue in fear of him escaping for big gains — of which he did many times anyway.

"We've gotta hit home. We had zero sacks, and that's unacceptable," Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd said after the game. "No turnovers, no havoc plays at all; that's unacceptable for our defense. It wasn't conservative play-calling, we've got to just take pride and get to the quarterback and make big plays at the end of the day."

"We were assignment sound but we just got physically moved around and worn out," Whittingham said.

While it's not time to think the season is lost — it's one game in a hotly-contested rivalry — Utah is at a crossroads. How the team responds Saturday against a San Diego State team that beat Arizona 38-14, albeit in a much less hostile road environment in Carson, California, will be a good test of their resolve and desire to be better.

In fall camp, Whittingham talked repeatedly about how the leadership of his current team had a 2019 feel to it — a team loaded with veteran talent that went 11-1 in the regular season. The BYU game can serve as the USC game of that 2019 season: Acknowledge the mistakes and obvious errors, and work for the rest of the season to limit them.

But it starts with the team's leaders. The coaches can game plan better and put players in position to succeed, but the players have to buy in, especially those voted to the leadership positions of the team, to correct the mistakes and hold each other accountable.

"Leadership is really needed," Whittingham said. "And where it really comes to the forefront is when you have adversity and challenging times. You don't need a bunch of leadership when everything's going great. We absolutely need leaders to step up this week, and my guess is they will respond."

Utah will travel to Carson, California, to take on the Aztecs at Dignity Health Sports Park while a new stadium is built in San Diego. The game will kickoff at 5 p.m. MT and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

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