After another great first half of football and taking an early 13-7 second half lead, the Cougs (1-3, 0-2) once again couldn’t seal the victory no matter how many times the Utes (2-2, 1-0) tried to hand them the game in a battle of who wants to lose more.
Jarrett Guarantano got the start for the Cougar offense in place of the injured Jayden de Laura. The Cougs would be aided from an early unnecessary roughness on the first play on offense and would drag themselves all the way to the Utah 34 before facing an early fourth and one decision. With an empty set, WR Lincoln Victor came in motion, ran under center and tried to run the rare wide receiver sneak. It didn’t work.
The defense would get a stop after eight plays, including forcing their first fumble of the day even though the Utes jumped right back on it, to give Guarantano and the crew their second shot of the day. Guarantano would stand strong and deliver some strikes to De’Zhaun Stribling, Travell Harris and Donovan Ollie as the Cougs would make their way down the field and into the redzone before Guarantano would throw it right into the chest of the lurking Utah linebacker Karene Reid who stepped right in front of the intended receiver. The defense would once again step up and force a quick punt from the Utes.
As the Cougs opened the second quarter mid-drive, Max Borghi would land awkwardly on his left arm as he was being tackled and have to leave the game and ultimately be ruled out for the rest of the game, spending the second half in street clothes. Guarantano would again look sharp when he wasn’t pressured and finish leading the Borghi-less drive with a 39-yard Dean Janikowski field goal. After trading punts, the Cougar defense would allow quarterback Cameron Rising to tuck the ball and run to an open right side on a read option for a gain of 31 yards and an additional 15 extra yards when Daniel Isom grabbed Rising’s facemask as he scampered out of bounds. Three eight plus yard rushes later, Ja’Quinden Jackson would punch it in from two yards out to put the Utes on the board and give them the lead seven to three.
In a four minute drill, Guarantano would hit Harris, Deon McIntosh, Joey Hobert and Stribling for four completions in a row to get the Cougs all the way to the Utah 25. After a failed challenge attempt from Rolovich after McIntosh fell just a yard short of the sticks, the Cougs would once again try a sneak on fourth and one with just a tick under 50 seconds left in the half, this time with Guarantano pushing forward to get the first down up to the 13. Yet after a promising start to the drive, the Cougs spoiled another redzone trip by having to settle for three and take a seven to six deficit into the locker room.
Things looked bright to start the 2nd half for the first time in awhile as Ron Stone Jr. would keep his rock solid game going by flying into the backfield untouched on a handoff and deliver a big hit on the ball carrier Micah Bernard to jar the ball free and give the Cougs the ball at the Utah 21. After two McIntosh carries, Guarantano would hit Stribling in stride over the middle on a second and 15 as Stribling would sprint into the endzone and give the Cougs a 13-7 lead as Guarantano brushed his shoulders off on the way to the sideline. Was this finally the second half Rolovich has been searching two seasons for?
Utah would begin driving right down the field before it looked like the Cougar defense forced another Utah fumble as George Hicks III appeared to have punched the ball free from Cole Fotheringham but he was ruled down. Rising would lead the Utes down the Cougs 11 yard line but another good defensive stand would hold Utah to three.
The Cougar offense would allow Utah to try again however as Devin Lloyd would jump right in front of Guarantano attempting a screen pass to the right side, bat the ball up to himself and complete the interception. Yet after seizing momentum and a chance to take the lead, Utah would once again gift wrap another break to the Cougs when Travion Brown ripped the ball right out of a passing Ja’Quinden Jackson’s arms to stop the Utes from taking advantage of the Guarantano interception. The Cougs would give it right back on a punt just four plays later.
The Utes would continue to wear down the Cougar 2nd half defense but would end the drive on a 31 yard missed field goal because the Utes continue to refuse to win this game.
Once again the Cougs would take advantage of another Utah mistake by promptly punting it away just six plays later. Running back TJ Pledger would dash right through the heart of the WSU defense on the next Utah possession on his way for a 51-yard run to set the Utes up in the redzone once again with a chance to tie or take the lead. I think by now you can assume what Utah does when they get to the one yard line. Armani Marsh delivered a big hit on Chris Curry who lost the football into the endzone for WSU to fall on. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s three fumbles for turnovers in the second half by Utah, the fifth total fumble by a Ute in the game and WSU has seven points off of said Utah butterfingers.
Surely, the Cougar offense will finally take advantage of this turnover this time right? Three and out. Punt. Eight plays later, TJ Pledger sprints through the worn-down Cougar defense without fumbling this time to finally give Utah the lead they’ve been trying so long to avoid at 17-13. Yet the Utes left Guarantano and the Run-And-Shoot Nick Rolovich offense that he is so well known for, 4:43 left to drive down the field and try and score the game winning touchdown. It was almost the same amount of time that Connor Halliday and Gardner Minshew had when they scored their own long game winning touchdown passes to beat Utah in 2014 and 2018 respectively. The 2021 Cougar offense had it’s chance to repeat history. On a fourth and long, Jarrett Guarantano would hit a wide open Clark Phillips who would dodge and weave his way through tacklers on his way for a game-sealing 54 yard pick six.
After getting his helmet ripped off on his seventh sack of the day, Guarantano would have to leave the field for the newest WSU QB2 Cammon Cooper to finish the game by taking WSU’s eighth sack of the game and following it up with two more incompletions to finish a 24-13 Utah win.
Once again, the offense was left in the locker room at halftime and left the defense to fend for themselves for the majority of the second half. The only touchdown they could muster up was because of a Utah fumble that gave them the ball just a yard away from the red zone. Even then, it was nearly all for not as the touchdown pass nearly went through a leaping Stribling’s hands.
Utah gifted WSU this football game. There’s no way around it. You can’t fumble the ball at least five times, miss an easy chip-shot field goal, turn the ball over multiple times in the red-zone and expect to win in a power-five conference game. Yet the Cougar offense refused to put their foot on the gas and accelerate to the finish line.
Kyle Wittingham and the Utes got Nick Rolovich and his Cougars Christmas list early and saw the number one thing he wanted was a win. Better yet, a Pac-12 road win to get his season back on track. So, Wittingham went out shopping, spent five fumbles and multiple botched red-zone trips on a loss, wrapped it up and hand-delivered the win to Rolovich. Rolovich promptly opened it, and handed it right back to Wittingham to keep for himself. Nothing like that September Christmas spirit to warm your heart.
Something good to end on
Ron Stone Jr. had a breakout performance! Stone Jr. was getting into the backfield on multiple instances causing havoc for that Utah offense. Stone Jr. ended the day with a grand total of three tackles for loss, one of them being a sack and another being on the forced fumble. The entire defense was trying it’s absolute hardest to get the offense going by forcing three fumbles, all on great hits on the ball or just ripping the ball right from Utah ball carriers. Good on the defense for continuing to be stout and advantageous.
When he had time to throw, Guarantano was able to fire some darts to WSU receivers. There were flashes of the highly-touted high school recruit Tennessee recruited in 2015 when he was upright.
Next up is another road-trip WSU fan’s hate to see on the schedule every year. California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California to play the Golden Bears. Cal is coming off a tough 31-24 loss to Washington in overtime as they fumbled at the goal line attempting to tie the game up. The health of Jayden de Laura will once again be something to monitor as well as Max Borghi. Things could get even uglier for the offense if both can’t go Saturday. Cal opens as seven and a half point favorites and if history tells us anything, it very well could be another typical eye-gouging and weird football match against Cal who just loves to play the state of Washington extremely tough even when their not supposed to.
This weekend was a tragic for both communities in Pullman and Salt Lake City. On early Saturday morning, two people were shot at a house party in Pullman off-campus. Liban Barre would die at the hospital while WSU student and football player Brandon Gray would have to be airlifted to Spokane where he is in critical but stable condition.
The following early morning, Utah football player and Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship recipient Aaron Lowe was fatally shot at a house party and another woman was shot and is in critical condition.
Lives were lost far too soon this weekend that shouldn’t have been. My thoughts are with the victim’s families and friends. Talk to and hug your loved ones close this week.
Rest in peace Ty Jordan, Aaron Lowe and Liban Barre.