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SALT LAKE CITY — San Diego State quarterback Lucas Johnson escaped untouched up the seam. The race was suddenly on to start the third quarter and Utah was in trouble.
Prior to Johnson's escape, Utah held the Aztecs to third-and-1 on San Diego State's 39-yard line and knew a designed run play would likely be called given the lack of passing from the Aztecs and the needed yardage to pick up a first down. But San Diego State's offensive line parted the red sea of Utah defenders with relative ease and away Johnson went.
The mobile quarterback, who got the start in place of injured starter Jordon Brookshire, appeared destined to reach the end zone before Faybian Marks brought down the QB at the 7-yard line. The run went for 54 yards and set the Aztecs up for their first offensive touchdown on a 7-yard rush by Greg Bell after a deadlocked 10-10 score at the halftime break.
In a game devoid of any real offensive production for either team — the two combined for a total of 168 yards at the break — the score was a real momentum changer.
But it was only one touchdown.
On the ensuing series, however, Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer telegraphed a pass that was picked off by Tayler Hawkins, who returned it to Utah's 7-yard line before being brought down by Brewer. Bell, again, found the end zone on the next play, and Utah was suddenly down by what seemed to be an insurmountable 14-point deficit.
"One of the most disappointing things in the whole game is how we came out in the second half," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingam said. "I thought they were ready to go. We had a great halftime session and adjustments, and I thought we had things settled. And then we gave up two touchdowns right out the gate — that was very disheartening.
"But as disheartening as that was, it was that encouraging to watch them come back in the fourth quarter and do some of the things they did."
Yes, Utah managed a comeback as quarterback Cameron Rising was inserted into the offense to lead the charge. That previously insurmountable lead was gone and Rising orchestrated a triple overtime thriller that ultimately fell short on a dropped 2-point conversion pass in the end zone from Rising to freshman Connor O'Toole.
The ending of the game made a previously dull and dreadful result into something entertaining — at least the fourth quarter and the bonus football period. But the finish was like putting a band aid on a massive laceration in hopes no one would know there was a deep wound underneath and in need of real attention.
And much like a laceration needs a doctor to sew it up to avoid infection, Utah is at a similar junction in a season where deep-seeded problems need to be fixed before a season is lost.
"Right now, we're not polished enough," Whittingham said, reflecting on his second straight loss of the season. "We practice the right away, prepare the right way, but it's not translating on game day like it needs to."
And it's not just one aspect of the game, either, it's all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. The defense, however, is closer to redemption and had a much-improved performance Saturday as opposed to being pushed around against BYU in the previous week. But there's still not enough takeaways, Whittingham said, and hits on the quarterback — havoc plays.
"I guess if there is a bright spot, it's we're 0-0 in Pac-12 play, and we start this week," Whittingham said. "But if we don't get better in a lot of things we will continue to get the same results, and so we've got to fix our issues — that's on us as coaches, and it starts with me, obviously.
"We've got to find a way to get us playing at maximum efficiency and maximum potential. That's my job as the coach, and so far through three games we haven't got it done, so we've got our work cut out for us as coaches this week."
Whittingham hopes to have some answers figured out quickly as Utah prepares for Washington State (12:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network) Saturday, but it was junior linebacker Devin Lloyd who said the players will hold a players-only meeting Sunday in hopes of getting the program back on track. It's an opportunity for the leaders of the team to put a hard reset on the season.
"We're just hosting a players-only meeting (Sunday) and really have to dig down deep and find out who we want to be, because all the potential is there, but it's a matter of being that team four quarter," Lloyd said.
Utah made the comeback a reality behind the leadership of Rising, who said he "laid into them a little bit once I got into that huddle" Saturday, but it's about embracing what worked at the end of the game and doing whatever the team can to replicate that success, even if it means a change at quarterback or personnel in the various positions groups on the team.
"What you saw in the last quarter is what we have to be for the entire game," echoed Whittingham. "We've got to have rhythm, we've gotta have explosiveness in the offense, and that's what we were in the fourth quarter — most of the fourth quarter."
Maybe it's enough to have Rising as the starting quarterback, or it's taking a second look at an offensive line that had no better than a 63.0 offensive grade, according to Pro Football Focus, in Saturday's performance.
It's not a time to be comfortable.
"We need to play more efficiently on offense; that is the No. 1 issue we've got right now," Whittingham said.