Football: Superior second half performance gives Utes the win vs. Aggies

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There was a shoot-out in the first half, but it was all Utah in the second. The Utes walked away with a 24-14 win against in-state foe Utah State.

At halftime, both teams had recorded two touchdowns, making the score even at 14. Utah needed a wake-up call after their first-half performance, and that’s exactly what they got from head coach Kyle Whittingham. He was not happy with the team’s lackluster performance.

“Didn’t play particularly well in any phase,” Whittingham said. “Did get a shut on the defense in the second half. Overall, we got to get a lot better.”

Whittingham notes there were positives and negatives from this game, but it was unimpressive for the most part, and the Utes will have their hands full in practice this week, specifically on run-block. For the second week in a row, Whittingham is frustrated with how Devontae Booker has to fight for small gains.

“We’re not giving him any room,” Whittingham said. “He’s having to break two or three tackles just to get a five-yard gain. We have to find five guys who can move some people around.”

Booker finished the game with 120 yards rushing on 31 carries, nearly double his yards from last game. He also had a touchdown in the second quarter. While his play is improving, the special teams’ is not.

After last year’s superior performance, the special teams is having an average year. Whittingham hopes they will improve to meet the standard set last season, but he did give credit to Britain Covey.

After an impressive 30-yard punt return where Covey avoided multiple tackles, Utah made the most of it. Later on in the drive, Andy Phillips nailed a 37-yard field goal to give the Utes a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Throughout the game, Covey did not take the easy way out, calling zero fair catches. Although he suffered some big hits because of this, he wanted to relieve some of those nerves the entire special teams felt.

“I wasn’t calling any fair catches because I saw a great opportunity to get on outside on these guys,” Covey said. “It was nice to finally break one.”

Whittingham appreciates Covey’s eagerness to run the ball after every punt but also wants him to know he needs to play it safe for the benefit of the team at certain times.

“We like him to be smart with his decisions back there, but he just wants to make plays,” Whittingham said. “He’s trying to do everything he can to spark the football team.”

Covey finished the game with 61 receiving yards.

Travis Wilson went out of the game in the second quarter and was not the only Ute to go down because of injury. First, Covey survived a scare early in the first quarter after helmet-to-helmet contact with USU’s Marwin Evans, who was thrown out of the game for the hit.

“It probably looked worse than it was,” Covey said. “It just kind of strained my neck, but … you never really know until the next morning.

Jared Norris had to be attended to later on as well, but he still finished the game, despite being a bit shaken up. While neither Wilson nor Hunter Dimick, who went out moments after Wilson, finished the game, Wilson did record a 12-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter. Whittingham does not expect either player to be out for an extended period of time, and his team can count on Kendal Thompson to lead the offense instead.

Although Thompson did have some questionable passes, including one that should have been picked off but was instead dropped by Utah State, he did have a rushing touchdown in the third quarter.

On the defensive side, “Sack Lake City” came out to play Friday night and registered two sacks, its first and second on the season. After USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton avoided an almost-sack, he threw an interception on the Aggies’ first drive of the game, giving the ball to Gionni Paul.

“I jumped in, fell right into my hands,” Paul said.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Aggies were poised to make it a one-possession game after trailing Utah by 10 points. Pita Taumoepenu then forced Chuckie Keeton to fumble when he sacked him and Paul was there again. Paul recovered the ball, giving not only possession but momentum back to Utah.

Overall, Utah got the win and also won the turnover battle, something that will be very beneficial later in the season.

“It’s the most important part of the game other than the final score,” Whittingham said. “We know what our percentage becomes when we win that battle.”

The Utes will be back in action next Saturday when they will play at Fresno State.

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@kbrenneisen