A single play can turn an entire game, which Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows well.
The Utes (2-2, 0-2 Pac-12) led most of the second half last week at Washington State, but an 89-yard touchdown catch in which Cougars receiver Easop Winston shook off several would-be Utah tacklers made the difference in a 28-24 loss to Washington State.
Utah now sits in a hole in Pac-12 play, ahead of facing Stanford, the team most responsible for beating the Utes with big plays a season ago.
Utah held running back and Heisman Trophy runnerup Bryce Love below his season average of 8.1 yards per carry in the 23-20 loss a year ago. But, as Love’s 68-yard touchdown rush in the second half proved, sometimes it just takes one big play.
“There’s nothing to be learned,” Whittingham said of Love’s game-breaking play a season ago. “That’s just the type of back he is. He’s able to go the distance on any given play.”
No. 14-ranked Stanford (4-1, 2-0) returns to Stanford Stadium on Saturday coming off a 38-17 loss at No. 6 Notre Dame with the hope of having Love’s explosive play-making back in the rotation. Love came out of the game last Saturday due to an ankle injury.
His status for the Cardinal’s first home game in three weeks will be determined later in the week, though Stanford coach David Shaw seemed optimistic on Tuesday.
“He’ll kind of be day-to-day, and we’ll probably make a late-week decision,” Shaw said. “The good thing is, it doesn’t look severe — not as severe as he went through last year, which is great.”
Love missed a game in 2017 due to an ankle injury, making his 2,118 rushing yards more impressive. And, when in the lineup, Love battled through the effects of the injury – making his FBS record of breaking at least one run of 30 yards or more in every game that much more eye-popping.
The running back’s game-changing ability becomes clear not just in his statistics, but the performance of the Stanford offense when defenses must account for Love. The fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss at Notre Dame underscores Love’s value.
Stanford trailed the Fighting Irish by a single possession when Love went to the locker room, but the Cardinal failed to gain a yard on its ensuing two possessions. One included an interception, as the Notre Dame defense adjusted to not having to face the threat of Love’s potential on the ground.
“There’s that combination of making sure he gets enough touches,” Shaw said of Love. “Because if he does (get multiple opportunities), he can typically break one and also realize, if (opposing defenses) are making it difficult, there are other things we can do.”
The Cardinal’s big-play threat with Love on the field does not end with him. Stanford’s been most effective offensively this season when quarterback K.J. Costello finds wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on long-yardage passes in single coverage.
Stanford got one such play against Notre Dame to knot the score at 14 in the second quarter. In total, however, Arcega-Whiteside was limited to six yards per catch — well below the 24 he averaged prior to the Week 5 contest.
Utah ranks third in the country in rushing defense, yielding just 83.8 yards per game on the ground. Whittingham said elements that made Notre Dame’s defense effective can be implemented during game-week preparation. The Fighting Irish offered something of a blueprint to slow the Cardinal, but as Utah experienced last week at Washington State, knowing what will beat an opponent and executing it are separate challenges. The Cougars’ air-raid offense produced 445 yards through the air with none on the ground.
“We knew they were going to come out with the heavy pass, and they got the better of us this time,” defensive back Julian Blackmon said in the postgame press conference. “For us, it was just being in better position and understanding that they were running stuff that we saw on film.”
Blackmon said the defense adjusted well in the third quarter and for much of the fourth after giving up 14 second-quarter points. The one big play in the fourth, however, made all the difference.