For three seasons, the Utah Utes have battled for a significant Pac-12 victory, a result that would validate their place in the BCS conference and show they could hang with the big boys in regular season games, not just one-and-done bowl games.
Who could have imagined such a win would come against the mighty Stanford Cardinal, a team that came to Salt Lake City with a lofty No. 5 ranking and aspirations of a national title.
Instead of another easy day in the Pac-12, the Cardinal (5-1, 3-1) left with just their sixth loss in four seasons and new respect for the Utes (4-2, 1-2) as Utah scored one of the biggest upsets in college football this season with their 27-21 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Stanford built a reputation for its physical, disciplined play. But in the Utes, the Cardinal met with a team that loves to play smash-mouth football just as much as they do.
Turns out, the Utes played it even better.
Utah’s remarkable win was just its fourth against top-10 teams in 21 meetings in the program’s history. The others were against No. 8 Colorado in 1961, No. 8 Arizona State in 1973 and No. 4 Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
The victory celebration on the field after the final seconds ticked off was like the “old days,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, thinking of Utah’s memorable undefeated run in 2008.
“It was another good night,” he said. “That is why you coach, for nights like this.”
Now that they’ve got one big win, the Utes feel they’ll have more as Whittingham and the players talked about the momentum the victory gives them as they head into a stretch in which they play four of their next six games on the road.
“I feel like we just won the national championship,” receiver Dres Anderson said. “It feels great and it’s exciting to be on the right path going forward.”
The game came down to a final defensive stand for Utah when Stanford got the ball on its 12-yard line with 7:53 remaining and trailing 27-21.
Stanford marched down the field to Utah’s 6-yard line. There, the Utes held strong, with Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan’s last two passes sailing high through the back of the end zone.
Stanford coach David Shaw credited Utah’s defense for its effort at the end.
“On fourth down, we had single cover or cover zero,” he said. “We could have changed the play but we didn’t, and we still had a chance, but they got to the quarterback.”
Utah’s defense, on a rising curve since the season started, had one of its best performances in recent history given the talent of its opponent.
The Utes forced three fumbles and recovered two of them, while linebackers Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham and defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi held up against Stanford’s vaunted run attack.
The Cardinal finished with just 143 yards rushing and Hogan was 15 of 27 for 246 yards and a touchdown.
“The linebackers and secondary came through at the end,” said defensive end Trevor Reilly, who recovered two fumbles. “What seems to be our theme as a team this year is toughness and that was personified on that last stand.”
The offense had its moments too. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, who had six passes intercepted in last week’s loss to UCLA, responded with a solid all-around effort, going 23 of 34 for 234 yards and two touchdowns and an interception off a tipped pass.
Just days after Whittingham said there was no separation between the running backs, Bubba Poole responded to his coach’s challenge with a massive game.
Time and time again he shot through huge holes in the middle of Stanford’s defense and finished with 111 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He also caught seven passes for 75 yards as he was incorporated into the passing game on swing routes that burned Stanford’s defense all night.
Whittingham said the schemes were crafted to make up for the loss of tight end Jake Murphy, who is out with a broken wrist.
“We had to do something,” he said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for you or change their defense for you, so we had to move some things in to maximize what we had at our disposal.”
The Utes played to their max for sure, getting a win they’ll remember for a long time to come.
“This is a great motivator for this team,” Wilson said. “We just have to make sure we keep building off this and moving forward.”
O In short • The Utes earn just their fourth victory against a top-10 opponent in the program’s history by outgaining the Cardinal 415-389.
Key moment • Stanford reaches Utah’s 6-yard line, where hopes of a comeback end with two incomplete passes.
Key stat • Stanford is held to just 38 yards in the third quarter.