Monson: Utes finally playing like the team they thought they could be
There were pithy questions to ask during and after Utah's 31-6 win over UCLA on Saturday evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Such as â¦
Are the Utes really getting better?
Do the recent Pac-12 teams they're playing flat-out suck?
Since when did qualifying for a bowl game with six measly wins become the thick line between success and failure?
How about this beaut: Where would the Utes be without John White the Fourth?
On that last one â¦ nowhere. White, the JC transfer, was the fourth choice of running backs for the Utes remember? way back when. Now, he, along with the entire defense, is their star.
Utah went ahead and gave answers with pith, too, and poise and power.
Yes, the Utes are improving, however good or bad Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA are. "We're as good as anybody in the league," offensive coordinator Norm Chow gushed as he walked off the field.
Yes, their bowl qualification, in their inaugural Pac-12 season, means something. Especially after a 3-4 start, after which Kyle Whittingham called a meeting with his juniors and seniors and had, as he put it, "a heart to heart."
Yes, they would be lost without White "He's a tough kid," Whittingham said and that impressive D "Outstanding," Whittingham tagged it.
One of the most fascinating aspects to Saturday's whole deal was an unfanciful, unvarnished football classic: UCLA's run game versus Utah's run defense. Blunt force against brunt strength. Velocity versus violence. And that matchup was made all the better by frigid, wretched weather only George Halas, a polar bear, and Ute offensive tackle John Cullen could have liked.
"Perfect football conditions," Cullen said.
Clouds. Cold. Wind. Rain. Snow. Frozen tundra. Check back for more storm updates later in the show.
As frosty blasts ripped both the remaining leaves off neighboring trees around Rice-Eccles and the faces off the 45,000 people loaded in it, the Bruins charged forward and did what they do: favor the ground at least two-thirds of the time. They demonstrated right from the jump that nothing about this game was going to be different, despite the Utes' propensity for shutting down unbalanced, run-oriented attacks.
Before the game, Utah defensive chief Kalani Sitake said his group's goal was the same as it always is: "Stop the run."
What's the key to victory? "Stop the run."
What's your biggest challenge? "Stop the run."
What's the purpose of life? "Stop the run."
Who's your favorite rapper? "Stopp D. Runn."
He was right. In UCLA's wins, it had averaged almost 100 more rushing yards well more than 200 than in its losses. The strategy, then, was all framed and frozen up.
The Bruins attempted to push the Utes around and advance the ball the old-fashioned way: 3 yards and a cloud of ice particles. It didn't work.
"We had a real good scheme," linebacker Brian Blechen said. "With the snow and stuff, we knew we could bury them into the ground."
The Utes built and held a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter, mostly on account of field position and a whole lot of defense and just as much of White. After forcing UCLA to punt out of its own end zone, and taking over on the Bruins' 39-yard line, White carried the ball and the offense on seven straight plays, scoring on the last for a 7-3 lead.
White's twisting catch "Crazy," he called it over coverage in the end zone early in the third quarter, followed by his 22-yard scoring run late in the quarter, jacked up the Ute lead.
Through the first three quarters, UCLA gained 193 total yards, 129 of them on the ground, rushing 36 times, throwing 10. Utah had 214 yards on 41 plays, 29 of them rushes. White ended up running for 167 yards, which was 18 more rush yards than UCLA's entire offense.
So, it was a complete win here, and the 6-4 Utes would take it. Questions, answers, and all.
"We're finally playing," said senior cornerback Conroy Black, "like the team we thought we could be."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.