We did not execute, plain and simple. —Utah receiver Raelon Singleton
SALT LAKE CITY — So much for a happy homecoming. Stanford handed the 18th-ranked Utah Utes their first loss of the season with a 23-20 victory late Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Credit Stanford. They were the better team tonight,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who joked that things will get easier next weekend when the Utes face 14th-ranked USC in a pivotal Pac-12 South clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Utah (4-1, 1-1) will head to California on the heels of its first regular-season loss since a 27-22 setback at Colorado last November. The Utes didn’t go down easily. They overcame two fourth-quarter interceptions, scored a late touchdown and attempted an onside kick before falling to Stanford for the first time since 1995.
Bryce Love, the national rushing leader, overcame a slow start and finished with 152 yards on the ground to pace the winning effort. Cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid made late interceptions to help preserve the outcome for Stanford.
Utah wound up with more first downs (25-14) than the Cardinal, but came up just short in total offensive yardage (384-382).
“This is like a heavyweight fight when these two teams get together,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “Both teams are physical. Both teams run the ball. Both teams have big, physical offensive lines and big, physical defensive lines.
“We knew it was going to be a war in the trenches and it was. Give coach Whittingham a lot of credit. Those guys fight and scrap. We'd like to think we do the same thing,” Shaw added.
The Utes entered the game as the only team in the South Division without a conference loss. Now they’re in a logjam with USC (5-1, 3-1), Arizona (3-2, 1-1), UCLA (3-2, 1-1) and Arizona State (2-3, 1-1) in sporting one conference setback.
Although Stanford took a 3-0 lead on the game’s opening drive, it wasn’t Love doing the damage. He managed just four yards on two carries.
Instead, it was quarterback Keller Chryst driving the Cardinal downfield. He completed three passes, including a 54-yard throw to tight end Kaden Smith, to help set up a 21-yard field goal by Jet Toner.
After an exchange of punts, Utah embarked on a scoring march of its own. A 2-yard touchdown run by Zack Moss capped a five-play drive that began at midfield. Matt Gay followed with the PAT to make it 7-3 with exactly six minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Gay was hit by a Stanford defender just over four minutes later when he missed a 50-yard field goal attempt. The kick was wide left (Gay’s first miss after opening the season with 14 consecutive makes). Officials ruled the contact incidental, raising the ire of Whittingham. An unsportsmanlike penalty was called and the Cardinal took over on their own 47-yard line. They reached Utah territory before the quarter was complete.
Early in the second, Toner joined Gay in missing his first kick of the season. He was 9 for 9 before a 27-yard attempt curved wide left.
Stanford’s fortunes changed, however, on its next offensive series. Utah’s defense had bottled Love up to the tune of nine carries for 8 yards before the junior broke free for a 39-yard burst. On the next play, Chryst covered the final 7 yards for a touchdown. The extra point kick was good and Stanford led 10-7 with 9:35 remaining in the half.
It stayed that way until a 30-yard field goal by Gay evened things up for the Utes three minutes before the break.
Before the half was complete, though, Stanford regained an edge when Toner connected on a 46-yard field goal — giving the Cardinal a 13-10 halftime lead.
Stanford extended its lead shortly after play resumed. A bad snap to Mitch Wishnowsky on a punt attempt led to the Cardinal getting the ball inside the red zone. They wound up cashing in with a 29-yard field goal by Toner to make it 16-10.
Utah countered with an extended drive that consisted of 15 plays, culminating with a 30-yard kick by Gay late in the third quarter.
It proved to be as close as the Utes would get over the balance of the game.
Stanford pulled away in the fourth quarter when Love broke free for a 68-yard touchdown run with 12:02 left to play.
As time wound down in the fourth quarter, Troy Williams was intercepted twice before throwing an 18-yard touchdown pass to Darren Carrington II with 44 seconds on the clock. Following the PAT by Gay, an onside kick was recovered by Stanford, putting an end to the comeback bid in the late-night affair that ended at 11:40 p.m.
“We did not execute, plain and simple,” said Utah receiver Raelon Singleton.