By King Jemison
No. 14 Stanford (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) suffered its second-straight loss Saturday night, this time falling 40-21 to unranked Utah (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) in Stanford Stadium. It was the first home loss for the Cardinal in nearly two years. Utah took advantage of four Stanford turnovers, turning them into 17 points, including an 100-yard pick six from defensive back Jaylon Johnson off an errant throw from junior quarterback KJ Costello. Running back Zack Moss keyed the efficient Utes offense with 160 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Stanford senior running back Bryce Love did not play due to an ankle injury.
“First of all, [we] lost to a very good football team in Utah,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game. “Coach Whittingham has done a great job for years there with their football team, their philosophy, their toughness, their effort. Great job by them.”
Twice in the first half, Stanford drove deep into Utah territory only to see the possession end with a Costello interception. The junior quarterback finished with a career-high 381 yards and a touchdown on 26 of 41 passing, but those two misguided passes were the key factor in Utah building up a 24-7 halftime lead. The first came off an underthrown jump ball attempt to senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone. Jaylon Johnson undercut the route and sprinted down the sideline untouched to put Utah up 14-0. On the very next drive, Stanford got inside the Utah 15-yard-line yet again. This time, Costello tried to throw it away as he was being sacked on third down. Instead he threw it right at Utes defensive tackle Hauati Pututau, who rumbled for 10 more yards after the interception. On the subsequent possession, Moss exploded for a 35-yard touchdown on fourth-and-two to give Utah a 21-0 lead late in first half.
“Can’t turn the ball over twice in the red-zone and not get points,” Shaw added. “Can’t throw the ball while we’re getting sacked. Can’t throw the ball flat when we need a jump ball. Pretty straightforward.”
Meanwhile, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley put together a mistake-free performance to lead an opportunistic night for the Utes offense. Huntley went 17 of 21 passing for 199 yards, including an off-balance 57 yard touchdown bomb to Samson Nacua after sophomore linebacker Gabe Reid nearly brought him down for a sack.
“(Huntley) played the position the way he has all year. Very efficient,” Shaw said in his postgame press conference. “The play of the night for me is him avoiding the sack. Big-time play. Avoided the sack and then having enough muster and arm strength to throw the ball down the field. Not a lot of guys can make that throw.”
Although Utah’s offense was efficient, averaging 6.6 yards per play, it received plenty of help from Stanford’s defense on all of its first-half scoring drives, including the two interceptions. On their first touchdown drive, Utah was forced to punt in Stanford territory. But a running-into-the-kicker penalty on junior defensive end Jovan Swann gave the Utes a free first down, and they went on to score off a seven-yard Moss touchdown run. Then on the very last possession of the half, Utah got the ball back with 24 seconds left and seemed likely to just run out the clock and go into halftime up 21-7. Instead, the Utes drove into Stanford territory thanks to a pass-interference penalty on sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo. Then with eight seconds left, the Cardinal switched into a prevent defense in anticipation of a hail-mary attempt. Rather than throw the ball into the end zone, Huntley dumped it off to Brant Kuithe who ran 17 yards to the Stanford 30. Utah kicker Matt Gay then drilled a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the Utes a 24-7 halftime lead.
Gay, who won the Lou Groza Award as the top college kicker last year, had a night worthy of his preseason All-American status. He hit all four of his field goal attempts, including two from long distance. His 48-yarder on the last drive of the first half and 49-yarder on the first drive of the second half gave Utah a commanding 27-7 lead that Stanford could never fully recover from.
The Cardinal nearly did get back into the game after falling behind by three scores thanks to a dynamic passing attack that saw three different Stanford pass-catchers finish with at least 100 yards. Sophomore tight end Kaden Smith had eight catches for 120 yards, both career highs. Senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside continued his stellar season with 103 yards on eight catches. Fellow senior receiver Trenton Irwin also set a career high with 100 yards on seven catches. Freshman receiver Michael Wilson caught his first career touchdown, a 26-yard strike from Costello that briefly cut the deficit to just 27-21. Costello rebounded after those two early interceptions to complete 63 percent of his passes for career-high yardage and nearly lead another epic comeback.
“I had a choice to make there: to sulk off two interceptions in the red-zone or keep fighting for my teammates.” Costello said after the game. “I learned a lot about myself tonight, and that has to be the mindset for all of us moving forward.”
But in the end, the Cardinal could not overcome the effects of another slow start. For the fifth time in six games, Stanford’s opponent scored first. For the second time this season, the Cardinal faced a 24-7 halftime deficit. In every game, they’ve fought back to make it competitive, but it’s impossible to expect to win coming from so far behind. Stanford coaches and players had little explanation for the disturbing lack of energy early in the game.
“I keep asking myself that, trying to figure that one out,” said Kaden Smith in response to questions about the reason for the slow starts. “We just need to come out faster.”
“For some reason, we are not playing at a high level until someone else scores,” Shaw added. “If I had the answer, I’d have fixed it a couple games ago.”
Stanford will have nearly two weeks to try and solve the slow start conundrum thanks to its upcoming bye week. Cardinal coaches will also look for answers to the troubling issues on the offensive and defensive lines, as Stanford’s traditional identity of Intellectual Brutality has been challenged all season by poor play in the trenches. The Cardinal rushed for just 42 yards on 1.5 yards per carry. Junior running back Trevor Speights and senior running back Cameron Scarlett each scored a touchdown, but outside of that, Stanford’s running game was largely ineffective. The absence of Bryce Love certainly hurt, but once again the Stanford offensive line struggled. They also gave up four sacks on Costello, including a fourth-quarter strip sack with the Cardinal down 37-21 that effectively ended the game.
Shaw called the offensive line play below the standards that he expects.
“We’ve made some really small mistakes that cost you big runs,” Shaw said.
On the other side, Stanford’s defense continued to be gashed by the run. Utah racked up 222 yards on the ground, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
“We didn’t play up to our standard,” fifth year linebacker Bobby Okereke said, repeating his coach. “We pride ourselves on being a physical, run-stopping defense, and we didn’t get that done.”
Stanford has between now and Oct. 18 to reach its standards before facing Arizona State in a Thursday-night road game. The Cardinal still control their own destiny in the Pac-12 North. Although it seems a like a long shot to go from two straight ugly losses to a conference championship game, Shaw has done it before, including last year. Regardless, after its first home loss since Oct. 22, 2016 against Washington State, Stanford is ready for a break from one of the toughest early season schedules in the country.
As Shaw put it: “We need this bye.”
Contact King Jemison kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu