The headlines will all be the same for the second week in a row with the Utes coughing up another five turnovers as the Utes dropped another Pac-12 contest, this time a 35-14 loss to Arizona State in another puzzling, turnover and mistake-ridden effort. However, the story itself is a little bit different than last Saturday's loss to Washington.
"Very similar to last week in a lot of ways. We came out of the second half down 10-7. We did some good things, scored, took the lead. [We're] 14-10. Then the wheels came off. We started turning the ball over," summarized Whittingham. "We'll start winning games when we stop turning the ball over. That's the bottom line. When we stop turning the ball over five-plus times, we'll start winning ball games. Until we do that, it's going to be a tough road."
Arizona State improved to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play. By sharp contrast, the Utes are reeling as they fall to 0-3 in conference play and look to quickly right the ship and salvage their season in hopes of earning a bowl bid of any sort.
"Anyways, we're 2-3. Conference hope, titles, I mean that's all, obviously a done deal," Whittingham concluded. "0-3 in conference, that's, insurmountable."
With that certainty, the Utes look to readjust their focus and expectations, and must find a way to move on from the two consecutive home losses.
"We've got to re-group. Right now, our modified goal is to get a win," Whittingham stated. "We've lost two in a row now. Seems like we've lost 10 in a row, that's how I feel. But we've got to find a way to get back in the win column."
Also for the second week in a row, the Utes were in the game until mid-third quarter before giving up three quick turnovers, resulting in 15 Arizona State points in the third quarter and 22 points in an approximate eight minute span, changing the game irrevocably. The turnovers, which hit in rapid succession, all came after the 4:52 mark of the third quarter, which began with the Utes leading 14-10.
Two big factors that differed from Saturday's loss to the Washington loss was the play of the Ute offensive and defensive lines. The defensive line gave up just 74 rushing yards Saturday afternoon versus the 185 rushing yards against Washington. With Tony Bergstrom returning and Sam Brenner returning to his natural right guard position, the Utes had more success running the ball against the Sun Devils, with 121 yards on the day versus the paltry 17 yard effort versus Washington one week ago.
Those two factors should have made life easier for backup Jon Hays, who started in place of the injured Jordan Wynn, but didn't pan out. Hays would put up Wynn-like numbers, going 18-30 with 199 yards and 1 TD, but also tossed three interceptions, one of which came in the early seconds of the second quarter in the redzone, which would have given the Utes a 10-7 lead, assuming a Ute score had they retained possession.
The Utes might have had a 10-0 lead at that point in the game, if not for a costly, uncharacteristic penalty on senior linebacker Matt Martinez on a crucial 3rd and 8 from the Utah 44 yard line for the Sun Devils. Fellow linebacker Boo Anderson had knocked ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler for a nine yard loss, producing a 4th and 17 punting situation, but Martinez was flagged for an illegal contact to the face personal foul, negating the sack, giving Osweiler and the ASU a first down at the Utah 30. Three plays later, ASU scored it's first touchdown of the game, tying up the contest 7-7.
Utah dodged a bullet on the first Hays interception, forcing a punt on the subsequent ASU possession as the teams traded empty possessions until 1:22 left in the half, when ASU kicked a field goal to go ahead 10-7.
Jon Hays would respond by marching his team down the field with a dose of his running ability, mixed with pin-point passing as the Utes went 64 yards in :54. As Hays guided the Utes to the ASU 16 yard line, he would throw a short, under-thrown pass in the endzone, leaving seven more points on the board going into the half.
Ute fans held their collective breath as the half started, wondering if they would see a repeat of last week's second half collapse, and instead were treated to another Hays-led drive that would cover 79 yards in nine plays and result in a touchdown. Arizona State would respond with a field goal on their own merits, in other words, not gift-wrapped and presented by the Ute offense, and it looked as if the contest might be a barn-burner.
Queue turnovers. Chalk up another Ute loss.
Post-game, Hays was obviously second-guessing some of the decisions he made in his first-ever start at the FBS level.
"I thought I played okay besides the turnovers. The offense goes as I go, and I turned the ball over three times. It's not going to help," Hays explained. "I took three points off the board with that pick at the end of the first half. I put the defense in a terrible spot. That could have been a 14 point swing, you never know. I'm just disappointed in how I played."
Linebacker Trevor Reilly, who ended the day with five tackles, one sack for a loss of 10 yards and three tackles for a loss of 29 yards, demonstrated the ultimate team attitude, and the stick-together message the Utes touted post-game. Reilly, on behalf of the Ute defense,shouldered some of the blame while supporting Hays and the embattled Ute offense.
"[Turnovers are] always tough, but at the same time, if we force four field goals, the score is 24, 22-14 and we're down one score, so it's [hard], but that's the nature of the game. We didn't force any turnovers either, we didn't help the offense out," Reilly said. "At 0-5, there's almost a zero percent chance we're going to win the game."
While many questioned the Utes on many different levels, Reilly did his best to put the Utes' two game skid into perspective.
"I don't know if effort's the issue," offered Reilly. "I just think that maybe we're not executing as well as we should."
Reilly was then asked whether or not the Ute defense had lost confidence or faith in the offense's ability to be effective.
"You always have to have faith. Once you lose faith and hope, you don't have anything," concluded Reilly. "So, we're going to keep believing that the offense is going to play great. We believe in Jon Hays, hopefully, we're going to get it together and be a great offense here."
Post-game, each Ute stuck to the party line, insisting that the team will stick together, re-group and move on, as was the message in the Utes' post-game meeting which had media members waiting an unusually long time for the customary press conference.
"I think we're disappointed, but we're going to look at it as a new season. We've got to get bowl eligible," Hays said. "We can win the rest of our games, and that's what we're going to go ahead and try to do."
"I know we're all still confident in one another. We're just going to continue to play hard throughout the season," junior wide receiver Reggie Dunn added. "We're going to come in Monday, watch the film and get ready to work and get ready for Pitt. I mean, we're down because we lost, but we've got to come back even stronger next week."
"There were just things that needed to be said. You know, we can't hang our heads. We're not used to being down like this, you know, but we've got a game next week, so we've just got to keep moving," said linebacker Brian Blechen, who spent some time at safety Saturday.
Reilly concluded his portion of the press conference with his expectations, and these words in response to a question about who was stepping forward to lead the team through adversity.
"There are different kinds of leaders on the teams. There's guys who can rally you with their words, and guys who rally you with their actions. We have captains, and guys who do both things," Reilly said. "The seniors are going to lead us through this. We're going to get out of this."