Utah went into Saturday's game against Arizona State knowing it had to help new starting quarterback Jon Hays to have a chance at victory. The Utes, however, needed Hays to help its cause. Neither scenario materialized.
Hays threw three interceptions, Utah committed five turnovers in all, and the nationally ranked Sun Devils (5-1, 3-0 in the Pac-12) toppled the Utes, 35-14, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah (2-3, 0-3) dropped its second straight game in which it committed five turnovers. After starting the season plus-nine in turnover margin during the first three games, the Utes are minus-nine in their last two games against Washington and Arizona State.
Three consecutive turnovers, a Hays interception sandwiched by two fumbles, were Utah's undoing after it had taken a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.
"Unfortunately, this was very similar to last week in a lot of ways," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "In the second half, we were down, 10-7, and did some good things, then took the lead, 14-10.
"Then the wheels came off and we started to turn the ball over. We'll start winning games when we stop turning the ball over. That's the bottom line. Until that happens, it's going to be a long road so that's our biggest issue right now."
Hays completed 18-of-30 passes for 199 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, two in the first half, in place of starter Jordan Wynn, who missed the game because of a shoulder injury.
Hays' interception in the end zone right before halftime stopped a Utah drive that reached the Sun Devils' 16-yard-line and helped Arizona State maintain a 10-7 lead.
A two-yard touchdown pass from Hays to tight end Dallin Rogers gave the Utes their second-half lead.
After an Arizona State field goal cut Utah's lead to 14-13, running back John White fumbled on the first play of the next possession. Hays threw an interception on the first play of the ensuing possession, and wide receiver Reggie Dunn lost the ball after a reception on the Sun Devils' 32 for Ute's third turnover in as many drives.
Arizona State scored touchdowns after each takeaway against a Utah defense that couldn't overcome the momentum swings.
"The defense hung in there very well as long as they could, but whatever spot you're put in as a defense, you have to try to rally up and make a stop," Whittingham said.
--The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Utes held a team meeting following the loss to the Sun Devils. "Things needed to be said," LB Brian Blechen told the newspaper. "We can't hang our heads. We're not used to being down like this, but we have to keep moving forward. We said some things like that."
--Utah, which was considered one of the best non-BCS programs (along with Boise State and TCU) before it became a member of the Pac-12, has lost five of its last six game against ranked opponents.
--The loss pushed Utah's conference record to 0-3. The Utes hadn't lost their first three conference games since 2002, when they were members of the Mountain West and Ron McBride was their coach. Not coincidentally, 2002 was McBride's last year as Utah coach. Whittingham has a little more leeway.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The dreaded team meeting is a risky proposition because it can sink a team if it doesn't get the anticipated bounce-back after clearing the air and uniting around each other. The Utes could be pressing while trying to show they belong in the Pac-12. That, plus a new quarterback, could explain the 10 turnovers in the last two weeks. The defense needs to find a way to reclaim the momentum for the offense, rather than coming unglued as it has done the last two weeks. If the offensive and defensive problems continue against Pittsburgh next week after the team resorted to Saturday's team meeting, the season might not improve.
LOOKING GOOD: The Utah defense allowed Arizona State to rush for only 74 yards, although 50 came in the pivotal third quarter. As long as the Utes' offense doesn't keep putting the defense in bad position, the defense is capable of playing well enough to win games in the Pac-12. The Utes have to learn how to play through adversity, something they didn't have to do on a weekly basis when they were in the Mountain West, but they still have enough talent to give opponents in their new conference problems.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Coach Kyle Whittingham put the blame of Utah's turnover problems squarely on the coaching staff. "I'm not ever going to point fingers at the players; we've got to coach it better," Whittingham told the Deseret News, when asked if it was mental or physical thing. "We've got to coach things better and that is the stance we're taking. We've got to coach better." He might not only be protecting the players. The Utes had said all week that QB Jon Hays' strength was using his athletic ability, which meant more running plays involving him. The coaching staff could've been more conservative with him, especially when the game was close in the second and third quarters.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are still confident in one another. We're just going to continue to play hard the rest of the season. We're going to come in on Monday and watch the film, then get ready to work and to play at Pitt. We're down because we lost, but we have to come back strong the next week. Obviously, we know we can play with these guys. You've seen that over the last couple of week against USC, Washington and Arizona State." -- Utah WR Reggie Dunn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DE Trevor Reilly had four tackles for losses, including a sack, totaling 29 yards. The yardage tied for the fourth most in school history. For the game, Reilly had five tackles and a forced fumble. His transition from linebacker shows the coaching staff made the right move in an effort to get more pressure in the opponent's backfield.
--QB Jon Hays said all the right things after a game in which he threw three interceptions that contributed to his team's downfall Saturday. "We're going to be OK. We just have to look at it as a new season and we're just going to try to win the rest of our games. I've learned that every play matters and everything you do matters, on the field and off the field. I have to take that to heart and come in to work on Monday." Hays' teammates must rally around him as much as he tries to correct his own mistakes.
--RB John White had a costly fumble in the third quarter that seemed to set the tone the rest of the game for the Utes. Still, he finished with a respectable 85 yards on 17 carries. Utah has done a good job limiting his carries to keep him fresh, but if the coaches don't trust any other ball-carriers, they're going to have to give him more touches to protect QB Jon Hays.
--RT Tony Bergstrom, who missed the last two games because of a knee injury, returned to the starting job against the Sun Devils. TE Jake Murphy, who also missed two games because of a knee injury, made his first career start against Arizona State.
--WR Devonte Christopher sustained a leg injury on a 74-yard reception that was negated by a penalty during the second quarter of Saturday's game against Arizona State. He finished with only two catches for 21 yards.
--Backup RB Tauni Vakapuna injured an ankle late in Saturday's game and will be re-evaluated. Return specialist Charles Henderson and LB Jacoby Hale both sustained knee injuries, and SS Keith McGill left the game because of a shoulder injury. The Deseret News reported that updates on their conditions are expected on Monday.