SALT LAKE CITY — Things were supposed to be different for Utah this fall after two straight losing seasons. For the Utes, it turned out to be the same old story in another forgettable Pac-12 opener.
Washington State rallied from a three touchdown deficit to beat Utah 28-27 on Saturday night largely because the Utes showcased many of the same problems that have plagued them since entering the Pac-12. The offense could not make plays in crunch time and the defense could not get enough stops when the game was on the line.
"We just have to put points on the board," senior receiver Kaelin Clay said. "The defense can only do so much. That's a great offense. Washington State is a great offense. We just had to put points up on the board and we didn't. We scored one touchdown. What was said in the locker room is we needed to put points up on the board and we didn't get it done."
Washington State (2-3, 1-1 Pac-12) had no such troubles when it needed points in the fourth quarter. Connor Halliday threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winning score to Vince Mayle with 4:58 remaining.
Rain fell steadily throughout but Halliday only heated up in the second half, throwing for 267 yards in the final two quarters. His biggest play came on the the Cougars' final scoring drive.
After Washington State started from its own 8, Halliday connected with Mayle in full stride across the middle. Mayle, who had eight receptions for 120 yards, sped untouched 81 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
It marked a big turnaround from a first quarter start where Halliday threw an interception that Eric Rowe returned 11 yards to start a run of 21 unanswered points for Utah.
"Offensively, we dug a hole for ourselves and we caused ourselves problems," Cougars coach Mike Leach said. "But there's a point that's always going to happen. Offense is always a little streaky and you just have to be patient and fight through it. I thought Connor and our offense did a good job of just fighting through it and waiting until we got our opportunities."
Utah (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) had two more chances to retake the lead. After Mayle's touchdown the Utes converted one fourth down on a Devontae Booker run. Then Charleston White broke up a long pass to give the ball back to the Cougars at the WSU 49 with 2:30 play.
Aided by two timeouts, the Utah defense held and the Cougars punted after consuming just 1:04. Again, White broke up a fourth-down pass intended for receiver Dres Anderson, who didn't have a catch after tallying 252 yards on 13 catches in the team's first three games.
In stark contrast to Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson completed 18 of 38 passes for 165 yards and consistently overthrew receivers or rifled the ball too hard. Booker rushed 24 times for 178 yards but the Cougars outgained the Utes 495-357.
"When you score one offensive touchdown you don't have much of a chance to win," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "That was really the issue. We got to be more productive, especially throwing the ball."
One week after falling just short to No. 2 Oregon (38-31), the Cougars saved their best for last against the previously unbeaten Utes. On fourth-and-14, Halliday waited for Williams to clear to the back of the end for a 20-yard touchdown with 8:08 to play. Halliday and his coach, Mike Leach, who is known for taking risks, scored two TDs on fourth-and-long situations.
Jason Fanaika, who spent much of the game in the WSU backfield, wrestled away a loose ball after it slipped out of Halliday's hands just before he wound up to throw a pass. Halliday had completed eight straight passes before the rain-soaked ball squirted up into the air and glanced off the quarterback's helmet and onto the ground.
"Everybody was amped up and ready to go," Fanaika said. "They just made plays when they needed to. You got to give them credit. Our defense - we didn't let down."
The Ute offense, on the other hand, sputtered when the ball wasn't in Booker's hands but moved enough for Andy Phillips to kick a 43-yard field goal with 14:13 remaining to make it 27-14 for Utah but the Utes couldn't get close enough again to get Phillips a chance at a game-winner.
"It was a step forward for our defense because it was the most complete game we've played since I've been here," Leach said. After a fumble recovery by Kache Palacio in the third quarter, Halliday finally looked like he was in rhythm and marched the Cougars down the field with passes to the right, left and middle. Halliday hit Mayle on an 11-yard touchdown strike to draw WSU to 24-14.
Halliday escaped the Ute rush on fourth-down-and-9 and lofted a 35-yard touchdown pass to Dom Williams with 6:54 left until halftime. Phillips added a 46-yard field goal with five seconds remaining in the second quarter and the Utes looked to be in command with a 24-7 lead at intermission.
Eric Rowe jumped a quick slant, grabbed a tipped ball for an interception and returned it 11 yards for Utah's first touchdown of the game with 10:01 left in the first quarter.
After stopping the Cougar offense again, Kaelin Clay shed a tackle near the sideline and then sped across the field and down the other sideline for a 58-yard TD return. The scintillating run marked his third punt return for a touchdown this season - which ties Steve Smith's school record set in 1999.
The Utes scored again when Booker scampered 76 yards for a touchdown and made it 21-0 in the first quarter.