I have some good news. It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. Yes, the Utes were beaten handily in regards to the scoreboard on Saturday. Yes, they don't look like the same team we saw as recently as three weeks ago. Yes, their inflated record may have been a product of their weak schedule. All that considered, after a second viewing, Utah wasn't that terrible on Saturday… and neither was Jordan Wynn. This team didn't quit. It just didn't execute. That may be hard for some Utah fans to swallow, especially those that were (for the second straight game) calling for Terrance Cain to relieve Wynn at some point. While Cain did make it in, it was only because of an injury to Wynn, with Jordan coming back onto the field a few plays later.
This game was fairly evenly matchup throughout. The Utes took control in the first quarter and really looked like the better, more athletic, and physically imposing team. The offensive line was getting a good push in the running game and Wynn was getting decent protection. The second and third quarters were mediocre, but the game really came down to just a few plays that turned the tide and gave the Irish a 25 point win. The eight plays below were, in my mind, the most crucial to the outcome of the game.
The situations and the plays:
It's 4th and 8 on the Utah 25 with about 2:20 to go in the first quarter. The Utes have held Notre Dame to a four and out (turnover on downs) and a three and out on their first two possessions. They're already leading 3-0 and are outplaying the Irish to this point. The offense has been able to move the ball a little bit and the defense is looking very good. Then…Notre Dame blocks the punt, and takes it in for the touchdown, giving them a 7-3 lead and all of the momentum. WTF?!?!?!?! What was Neli A'asa doing? Where was Sam Brenner pointing out the two guys coming from the left and telling A'asa to take the far man? Why did all three blockers take the same guy? How many punts have the Utes had blocked this year? Why are they still using that formation if the blockers aren't going to look around and see where guys are coming from?
It's 3rd and 6 on the Utah 24 immediately after Notre Dame has scored on the blocked punt. Utah needs to respond with a drive of some kind to retake the momentum. Jordan Wynn takes off running and slides a yard short of the first down instead of trying to barrel his way through. Utah is forced to punt. Notre Dame blows down the field and scores a touchdown. Wynn needs to toughen up. I know he's the not the biggest guy or the best runner, but he needs to lower his shoulder there and try to get the first down. It's been evident the last three games that he absolutely hates contact. When your quarterback and leader isn't going to show any toughness, the other players see that and feed off of it.
It's 1st and 10 on the Utah 44 with about 13:00 minutes left in the second quarter after a short Sean Sellwood punt gave Notre Dame good field position. The Irish had just picked up a first down on a Sealver Siliga holding penalty when Jonas Gray broke a 36 yard run down to the Utah 8 yard line after Boo Anderson made a pathetic attempt to bring him down. Anderson had Gray at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and instead of driving them him to make a tackle, tried to bring down the 230 pound back with an arm tackle, couldn't get his arms on him, and Gray took off down the sidelines. Notre Dame would score two plays later giving them a 14-3 lead.
It's 4th and 7 for Notre Dame on their own 32 yard line with about 7:00 minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Utes moved the ball down the field well on the previous possession and forced the Irish to give it up quickly right after. The snap to the punter Turk was very high. He did a great job of brining it down, but the Utes didn't have any sort of a punt rush on. Had they put a rush on, the kick would likely have been blocked. If Turk doesn't pull it down, the Utes probably get the ball inside of the Notre Dame 20 yard line. Instead, Turk gets the punt off and kicks it out of bounds, negating any chance Shaky Smithson had for a return. While it may seem like a small insignificant play, the fact that Utah couldn't capitalize on what could have been a disastrous play for Notre Dame was huge.
The opening kickoff of the second half with the Irish leading 14-3 and the Utes needing something to get their confidence back offensively. Shaky Smithson fumbles the ball at the 26 yard line and Notre Dame recovers. The Irish score on the next play. If Shaky doesn't drop that, I'm confident the Utes come down and getting a score of some kind, making it at worst a one score game. Just like the game last week against TCU, a turnover shortly after the opening kickoff dooms the Utes and they go from catchup mode to panick mode.
On the very next play, Brian Blechen takes the worst angle in the history of college football and Notre Dame gets a TD. This was a freshman mistake if I've ever seen one. Chaz Walker also didn't bump the receiver at the line despite lining up right next to him. If he's bumped, the receiver is thrown off of his route and the touchdown probably doesn't happen. Just like last week against TCU, the Utes turned the ball over to open the second half and the other team had a big play on the next snap that led to a touchdown. Much of the energy for the Utes was taken away right then and there. They instantly started questioning themselves as a team, as players, and figured they wouldn't be able to come back.
We'll group these two plays together:
There are about 4:00 minutes left in the third quarter with Notre Dame leading 28-3. Shaky Smithson had just picked up a fourth down conversion on a great catch and run getting the Utes inside the Notre Dame 10 yard line. The Utes absolutely need a score here to cut it from a 3 score game to a three score game. After 2 failed runs, Jordan Wynn threw two passes to DeVonte Christopher. The first one was a defensive pass interference on Notre Dame cornerback Gray, yet went without a flag. Gray was all over Christopher and DeVonte was furious with the no-call. Instead of kicking the field goal and getting to withing three scores (which looking back at it now they absolutely should have done), Kyle Whittingham decides to go for it. Wynn throws a low pass to Christopher at the goal-line that goes incomplete. Gray again has his hands all over Christopher, but the Utes don't get the call. Poor officiating, but the Utes also failed to capitalize. You can't rely on an officiating crew that had already been shoddy throughout the game. At this point, GAME OVER!!!
The common theme with the above plays were the Irish making big plays and the Utes failing to do so. Utah didn't have a big play offensively all day and only a few defensively. Their inability to have someone rise-up and do something extraordinary killed them. The Irish won this game on those 8 plays. Outside of that, this game was very close and could have easily been won by Utah. Either eliminate those 8 plays or have the Utes make a big play on their end and they probably win by 10 points. The game was that close as a whole.
On to the quarterback situation. Jordan Wynn wasn't that bad. The interception he threw was into tight coverage and he is checking down to his running backs too often, but I think people are focusing too much on the slide that was short of the first down and the lack of long passes. Earlier in the year, the Utes were taking the same passes he threw on Saturday for touchdowns instead of 3 yard gains. While Wynn wasn't super sharp and hitting his receivers in stride all the time, he was getting the ball their more often than not. The receivers just weren't doing a great job of getting open and were picking up little yardage after making the catch. Wynn threw a pretty good ball to Luke Matthews in the end zone that should have been a touchdown. If Matthews times his jump properly and gets more than 8 inches off of the ground, the Utes would have had a touchdown. That's not Wynn's fault. Wynn is going to be yur quarterback next week and for the rest of the year. If he isn't, I'll be beyond surprised and it will be a huge mistake by the coaching staff. Sometimes mixing it up with a change of pace quarterback like Terrance Cain is the right thing to do, but the Notre Dame secondary and linebackers were playing very well in pass protection. I don't think going to Cain would have made a difference at all, and the Utes very well could have regressed.
I don't understand the running game right now. Matt Asiata needs to be your one and only feature back. He needs the ball 25+ times a game. Eddie Wide can live with 5 carries. More Asiata over and over again will lead to the promised land. Stop trading off series or pulling Asiata mid series to throw a shovel pass to Wide. It's not working.
The offensive line wasn't as bad as I initially though. The false starts were obviously troubling as they happened time and time again, but the push in the running game was decent as was the protection. You can't block athletic linemen like Notre Dame's all game and expect to keep Wynn off of the ground the entire time. The tackles didn't have their best days as Bergstrom and Cullen were beat more often than they should have, but outside of the penalties, the interior of the offensive line was much better after watching the game a second time.
Not the worst performance by the secondary for the most part (outside of Blechen's huge mistake on the touchdown). Michael Floyd is a very good receiver and Burton did an admirable job on him on Saturday. Notre Dame's quarterback Rees was accurate on Saturday and made some nice throws for a freshman. He may have had 3 touchdowns, but the Utes held him to 129 yards.
The linebackers are hurting right now. The loss of Chad Manis has turned out to be huge. They were slow, and overpowered for much of the day. Chaz Walker was bad in pass protection and did an awful job of getting off blocks and taking proper pursuit angles. He looked small and slow. Matt Martinez was getting pushed around a lot and Boo Anderson just isn't there yet as a player. J.J. Williams doesn't look 100% yet either. The defensive line has made this unit look much better than they are this year, and did a pretty good job of putting them in position to make plays on Saturday. They just didn't make those plays.
Kudos to the defensive line. While they didn't have a ton of sacks, they were pretty good on Saturday. Outside of a few penalties, Siliga was a beast and unblockable at times. He would have had an interception after deflecting a ball, but it was knocked away by Star Lotulelei. Derrick Shelby was effective in the limited number of reps he had. Why he wasn't on the field more was surprising. Star Lotulelei is looking like the best option next to Siliga on the line as Dave Kruger was nowhere to be found. Trevor Reilly got a lot of snaps as the coaches tried to add more speed to the line, but was largely ineffective, while Christian Cox had his standard solid, but not spectacular, game again.
Remember when we were touting the Utah special teams as the best in the country just a few weeks ago? They were terrible on Saturday. TERRIBLE!!! Suddenly Sean Sellwood can't kick a punt over 35 yards, and the third (or it is the fourth) punt block of the season was ridiculous. Shaky isn't getting any sort of blocking for a chance to return any punts. What happened to this unit?
So again, where does this team go from here? They were humiliated on national television, despite not playing as poorly as the score indicated. They've got two good to decent teams coming up to close the year. From this week on, it's up to the coaches to get this team motivated and playing like they were just a few weeks ago. If they are who I still think they are, the Utes should win the last two easily. If Kyle Whittingham has lost his team or they feel they have nothing to play for, they're going to have trouble. I think we have a much better grasp on just how good Utah is (not a top ten team), but we'll find out what they are made of as they roll into San Diego on Saturday to take on the Aztecs.
Utah Falls To Notre Dame
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