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Utah receiver Dres Anderson broke free, and the Utes seemingly were about to salvage their Pac-12 opener Saturday night.

And then he dropped the ball.

Amazing, how the look and feel of Utah's football season could change so suddenly. In a 28-27 loss to Washington State, the Utes went from dominating the first quarter in every phase of the game to struggling offensively and eventually falling apart defensively.

So what looked like a sure 4-0 overall start leading into a Pac-12 South showdown vs. UCLA at the Rose Bowl next weekend now becomes just another 0-1 launch of conference play. But this is worse than Utah's previous September results. Much, much worse.

The Utes blew it, and they knew it. By giving away a 21-0 lead — built by the creative combination of Eric Rowe's 11-yard interception return, Kaelin Clay's 58-yard punt return and Devontae Booker's 76-yard run — the Utes turned this episode into their most egregious loss of the Pac-12 era.

The offense did basically nothing after Booker's big run, producing only two field goals. The defense deserved more help, but those guys also get their share of the blame after allowing 495 total yards and four touchdown passes, including an 81-yarder that gave the Cougars the lead in the last five minutes.

This game goes into the books as a total meltdown for Utah, the kind of showing that demands a reassessment of this season. Beating Michigan no longer counts as a breakthrough, that's for sure. So just like that, we're back to where six wins and bowl eligibility look like genuine achievements for this team and the issue of coach Kyle Whittingham's future inevitably resurfaces.

If his latest offensive coordinator, Dave Christensen, can manufacture only 357 yards and 13 offensive points against Washington State's defense, that's not much supporting evidence for Whittingham.

"When you score one offensive touchdown, you don't have much of a chance," Whittingham said. "That was really the issue. We've got to be more productive, particularly throwing the ball."

Whittingham talked all summer about needing to finish games better. So what happened in the Utes' conference opener? They pretty much duplicated last November's home loss to Arizona State, losing a two-touchdown advantage in the fourth quarter.

What more could the Utes have wanted? Utah jumped out to a three-touchdown lead at home in the rain, against an opponent that at best resides in the Pac-12's middle tier. And that was insufficient, in the end.

Anderson, incredibly, failed to catch a pass in this game. That may have been the fault of Christensen or quarterback Travis Wilson at various points, but certainly not on the first play of the second-to-last drive, right after Utah had fallen behind. Anderson could have saved the game — and the season, really — but a receiver with justifiable NFL ambitions could not make an easy play.

Later during that drive, Wilson's long pass to Anderson was underthrown just enough that WSU's Charleston White could tip it away on fourth down.

One or two plays didn't determine this game, though. The Utes lost it in so many ways, at so many stages. They missed a great chance to knock out the staggering Cougars in the first half, while making all kinds of mistakes the rest of the night.

Booker established himself once and for all as Utah's tailback by rushing for 178 yards, but he also committed a chop-block penalty that halted a nice drive. Clay fumbled the ball after a long reception. The defense, missing star safety Tevin Carter, played solidly for three quarters, with Jason Fanaika recording two sacks and a fumble recovery, but then lost control during a disastrous fourth quarter.

This season showed signs of being different, but the reality remains: Utah never wins Pac-12 games in September.

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