Apparently, all the Utah Utes needed to save their season were those black uniforms, an offense that helped more than it hurt and coach Kyle Whittingham's recent reminder of the defensive philosophy of doing your own job, succinctly expressed in seven words: "Shut them out or shut your mouth."
The Ute defense went out Saturday night and almost did exactly that the shutting out part, I mean in a 27-8 defeat of Oregon State at Rice-Eccles Stadium. This was a vintage performance of stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and forcing takeaways.
"Our defense is pretty good when we don't get put in a bunch of bad situations," Whittingham said.
Even the one time that happened Saturday, when John White tarnished his 205-yard night with a fumble at the Ute 12-yard line, the defense responded early in the fourth quarter. Chaz Walker forced a goal-line fumble that Trevor Reilly recovered, providing a signature play in a game filled with them. Mo Lee, Ryan Lacy and Matt Martinez intercepted passes. Tevita Finau, hardly the most famous Ute defensive lineman, registered three of the team's six sacks. Walker made 11 tackles. Eric Rowe broke up two passes.
Suddenly, the Utes resembled a Pac-12 football team.
The Utes know exactly what they have to do to experience winning. At this point, their season is not about developing a high-scoring, explosive offense. The trick is just to make the opposing offense look worse.
Saturday, they succeeded.
This is the kind of defensive effort it will take for Utah (4-4) to win any game in this league, considering the state of the Ute offense, with two more victories required for bowl eligibility. After a highly productive second quarter, when White was running wild and quarterback Jon Hays tossed two touchdown passes, Utah totaled 52 yards in the second half, while outscoring OSU's defense 3-2.
In this case, that was good enough.
The latest "Blackout" promotion worked wonderfully. The Utes broke out the old uniforms they wore while holding Texas Christian to 10 points in 2008 and Wyoming to 10 in '09 not the specialty version in which they allowed TCU to score 47 last November.
The defense stuffed the Beavers in the first half and stiffened when necessary in the second half. If not for a roughing-the-kicker penalty that sustained a drive after a missed field goal, OSU may not have scored other than a safety that followed Reilly's fumble recovery.
"The stuff we've been giving up has been our mistakes," said Ute safety Brian Blechen. "We know we're capable of shutting a team out and playing lockdown D."
This showing came against a decent offense. The Beavers scored 37 points against Arizona and 44 against Washington State in October.
The Utes hounded quarterback Sean Mannion all night, especially at critical moments. "Individually, they're a good pressure team, one-on-one," said OSU coach Mike Riley. "They can make plays and they were able to cut it loose with the blitzes with their lead late in the second half."
Yet Whittingham said the Utes blitzed less than usual. The consistent pressure came from the linemen. Because the Beavers were preoccupied with Derrick Shelby on the other side, Finau said, "I was just over there running around."
That worked well for the Utes. So did frustration. "We've had so much losing; we're sick of it," Blechen said.