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Kragthorpe: Upset validates Utah's Pac-12 status (with video)

Published October 12, 2013 11:06 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Nobody will create a lasting symbol of this victory, unlike the giant banners displayed on the Rice-Eccles Stadium facade to observe some of Utah's other major football achievements of this century.

Yet in its own way, the Utes' 27-21 upset of No. 5 Stanford just might top anything they've done lately. Maybe there's no trophy to accompany Utah receiver Dres Anderson's feeling "like we just won a national championship," as he exuberantly expressed in Saturday's postgame news conference. Regardless of how anyone measures the impact, though, the Utes desperately needed this breakthrough. Only by beating the defending Rose Bowl champions could the Utes validate themselves to this degree in their third season of Pac-12 membership.

"Coming into this league's not easy," said Ute co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, formerly a longtime head coach in the conference, "but they've stuck with it."

That approach was rewarded. Stanford was 6 yards from the end zone in the last minute, 6 yards from changing the entire ending of this tale and 6 yards from adding to Utah's litany of tough losses in the league this season. But when Utah's pressure forced Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan to throw two incompletions with 2 yards to go for a first down, Stanford's 13-game winning streak ended.

The story so easily could have become how Stanford drove 88 yards for the winning score and rallied from 13 points behind in the fourth quarter, after somehow keeping Utah from taking complete control of this thing. The Utes deserved a better outcome than that, and they got it.

"They believe in what we're doing, they believe in each other and they believe in the system," said coach Kyle Whittingham.

Of course, this will become The Night That Changed Everything only if the Utes follow through in their last six games of this year and in seasons to come. Stanford was vulnerable, as Washington proved last week, and Utah caught the Cardinal in between another high-profile game against UCLA next weekend. That's not to diminish any aspect of Utah's victory, though.

The Utes wobbled in the fourth quarter, when Stanford posted 142 yards to their 21, but they dominated this game in the middle two quarters and could have won convincingly, or at least comfortably.

These upsets never come easily, do they? Utah might have lamented getting only two field goals from three great scoring chances in the second half. But the fact the Utes were so well-positioned to beat Stanford was a tribute to good coaching and some big-time performances.

Basically, the Utes won this game last winter, when Whittingham hired Erickson. Working with co-coordinator Brian Johnson, Erickson copied the success of UCLA last season and Washington last week against Stanford, with a horizontal-stretch scheme that nullified the Cardinal's inside strength. The motion, movement and "Comet" passes to running back Bubba Poole on the perimeter worked nicely, loosening the defense. So did a two-back scheme, overcoming the Utes' injury losses of their top two tight ends.

Defensively, coordinator Kalani Sitake and his players recovered remarkably well after Stanford scored on its opening drive. Until the fourth quarter, the Cardinal's only other score came via kickoff return.

Whittingham praised his staff, but insisted, "It all boils down to players." That's true.

Poole is proving to be a nice discovery, producing 186 yards of rushing and receiving. Andy Phillips kicked a 48-yard field goal that ultimately kept Stanford from tying the game at the end. Trevor Reilly recovered two of Hogan's fumbles in the third quarter. And quarterback Travis Wilson bounced back from his six-interception game against UCLA to pass for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

Wilson was not claiming any vindication afterward, simply labeling the win "a great motivator for the team" going forward. Imagine if the Utes had beaten UCLA; they'd be leading the Pac-12 South.

Utah (4-2) still needs two wins for bowl eligibility, as Reilly pointed out.

In that sense, this accomplishment counts only as only one victory. But its value certainly goes way beyond that, into a realm with the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl wins that merited those banners.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt