Palo Alto, Calif. • Utah’s offense looked much better Saturday night, showing variety, making critical plays and finishing drives.
And when the defense scored some points of its own, the Utes discovered a winning formula in Pac-12 play for the first time this season in a 40-21 road victory over No. 14 Stanford.
Ute linebacker Chase Hansen had said it almost disgustedly, wishing the offense and defense just once could thrive at the same time. That's exactly what happened in the first half at Stanford Stadium, where the Utes took a 24-7 lead with an efficient offensive performance and cornerback Jaylon Johnson's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Utah (3-2) wobbled in the third quarter as Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello heated up, but the Ute defense responded with a third-down stop via Maxs Tupai’s sack and the offense then delivered its biggest play of the season. Under pressure, quarterback Tyler Huntley managed to heave a pass that Samson Nacua turned into a 57-yard touchdown for a 37-21 lead. The offense topped 400 yards for the first time since the season opener against Weber State, and Huntley’s TD pass was his first since early in the fourth quarter of that game.
Stanford's next drive ended with Bradlee Anae's strip of Costello and Corrion Ballard's recovery of the fumble. The offense turned the takeaway into a clinching field goal, Matt Gay's fourth of the night. Zack Moss' 34-yard run started the possession and helped him post 160 yards for the game.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham told his team afterward, “That's who we are.”
The combination of contributions from the offense, defense and special teams made the Utes look like the team they were supposed to become this season.
The defense allowed 381 passing yards, but offset that vulnerability with four takeaways, one for a touchdown – fulfilling the group's stated goal of “four and a score” in any game.
Huntley's game summary won't appear in the official transcript, but his words were telling, about how the Utes were tired of hearing about their deficiencies. As he took a chair in the interview room, he wondered aloud, “What y'all got to say about my receivers now? What y'all got to say about our offense?”
The answer: They've improved. Huntley completed 17 of 21 passes for 199 yards; wide receivers accounted for 12 catches.
So the Utes broke a streak of eight losses to Pac-12 North opponents, dating to October 2016. The timing is good, giving them some momentum as they launch a run of four games against South rivals, beginning Friday against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah was in danger of falling way behind in the South, even before meeting any of those opponents. The Utes' outlook changed markedly after their performance Saturday. In the buildup to the game, Ute receiver Britain Covey rationalized that a 1-2 start in conference play had seemed reasonable to most people going into the season. That record looks a lot better now than 0-3, certainly.
After the Ute defensive linemen rushed the quarterback 60 times against Washington State last weekend as the Cougars barely bothered with running plays, Anae was eager to face a more traditional offense at Stanford.
The Cardinal's approach was altered when coach David Shaw announced about 90 minutes before kickoff that star running back Bryce Love would not play, due to an ankle injury he sustained last weekend at Notre Dame. Stanford already had evolved into more of a passing team this season, with opposing defenses gearing themselves to stop Love, the 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Love's 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter last October was critical to the Cardinal's 23-20 victory in Salt Lake City.
The Cardinal stuck with their usual, run-oriented approach in Saturday’s first quarter, then adjusted when Utah’s front seven was stuffing them. The new strategy was working, but then Johnson stepped in front of a Costello pass and made an interception that he returned 100 yards for a touchdown, making it 14-0.
Defensive lineman Hauati Pututau's interception stopped Stanford's next drive, and the Ute offense went back to work after a long break. Having driven 80 yards for a touchdown on their previous possession, the Utes went 72 yards this time. Moss covered the last 35 yards with a burst up the middle on fourth and 2.
Stanford (4-2, 2-1) answered by driving to a touchdown with 24 seconds left. But that allowed the Utes enough time to move into position for Gay's 48-yard field goal for a 24-7 lead as the half ended, rewarding Whittingham's aggressiveness.
Gay added a 49-yarder as the third quarter opened, then Stanford answered with two touchdowns to cut the lead to 27-21 after three quarters. At that stage, the Cardinal had scored on three straight drives, spanning halftime.
But the Ute defense steadied itself, and the offense completed a meaningful victory.