Saturday's game against Pittsburgh was the closest thing to a must-win the Utah program has faced since 2007. With their backs against the proverbial wall, the Utes found a way to win despite an early morning kickoff, 40-mph wind gusts, horrendous special teams and very poor offensive line play.
Turnovers were a major focus for the Utes this week during practice. After two consecutive five-turnover games the extra attention given to protecting the football paid off as the Utes made it through the game without a single giveaway. The players made a very visible effort to protect the football, often covering the ball with both arms as they ran.
Utah won the turnover battle 3-0, recovering a Pitt fumble and intercepting the Panthers twice. Derrick Shelby's interception late in the fourth quarter sealed the win for the Utes as he returned the pick 21 yards for a score, putting the Utes ahead 26-14.
From beginning to end the game was anything but pretty. For three hours both teams struggled to find any kind of offense. The better team definitely won the game, but not because of a dominating effort or spectacular play. For four quarters it seemed like the team that hurt themselves the least would win. It turns out that team was Utah.
Utah's lack of turnovers kept them in the game despite horrible special teams play. Missed tackles led to Pitt's opening score when Panther returner Buddy Jackson went 98 yards after bouncing off a number of Ute tacklers. On the next drive, after going three-and-out Utah's punt was blocked and returned by Pitt for a touchdown. If those were the last of the special teams blunders they would be more than enough, but other plays later in the game made this one of the worst efforts from Utah in a very long time. After the game Coach Whittingham compared the special teams play to an ‘atom bomb' hitting the field, the results were that disastrous.
Coleman Peterson needs to be recognized, though. His field goals from 23, 34, 39, and 45 yards kept Utah in the game when it seemed like they were trying to give another one away. He was perfect on the day despite very strong wind gusts.
Utah's offensive line was nearly as bad. As a group they gave up 7 sacks and looked lost many times during the game. Pitt brought a lot of pressure, but it seems like their line calls and pre-snap reads were off throughout the day. When Jon Hays wasn't sacked he was often throwing with a man in his face or running to avoid a sack. This unit hasn't lived up to expectations all season. Tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom were caught multiple times blocking nobody as blitzers ran past them into the Utah backfield. Cullen looks particularly lost on the field making mistake after mistake and racking up large amounts of penalty yards. His penalties seem to hurt worse than others coming on critical third downs or backing Utah out of good field position. His leash may be short going forward if he continues this string of bad play.
Despite the issues on the offensive line, running back John White IV was able to shine. His 171 yards rushing nearly matched his season high set against BYU and he was without question the offensive star of the game. White was leaned upon heavily to put the offense in short down and distances and to chew the clock because of the bad wind conditions and inexperience of Hays. He did both of those as he ran through, over, and around the Pitt defense all game long. His performance did not include a touchdown despite two possessions inside the 10 yard line, but he almost single-handedly kept the Utah offense moving while giving the defense time to rest on the sideline.
And where would Utah be without the performance of the defense today? Consider this: Pitt scored a grand total of ZERO offensive points but had a very real chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter. The Ute defense pitched a shutout, though, while also holding Pitt to some of the lowest amounts of yardage on the ground and through the air that a Utah defense has allowed in many, many years. 70 yards rushing, 50 yards passing, 120 yards total. Those are numbers typically seen after one quarter, not an entire game. Pitt's workhorse and the nation's second-leading rusher Ray Graham, who typically averages just less than 150 yards rushing per game, was held to 46 yards on 12 carries. Without Graham for Pitt to lean on they were forced to throw the ball which was a task too large for quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Trey Anderson as they rotated snaps throughout the game. The Utes pressured both quarterbacks finishing with 6 sacks and 8 tackles for loss.
Moving forward the Utes now have some momentum, if you want to call this win a momentum-builder. At the very least they have a little more confidence heading in to their game against Cal. A win, no matter how ugly, is still a win and an ugly win beats an ugly loss every day of the week. The schedule for the Utes also gets a lot less difficult moving forward. The combined record of Utah's first six opponents? 29-10. The combined record of Utah's last six opponents? 12-25. The relaxed schedule may be just what the Utes need as they play out the second half of the year and attempt to rebuild what could have been, what almost was a lost season. Only time will tell.
Game Review - Utah at Pittsburgh
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