This has happened only once before in Utah's Pac-12 era. The annual football game against Colorado always comes at the end of the Utes' conference schedule, but Saturday's visit will mark the first time since the program's initial season of membership that Utah has stayed in the Pac-12 South race long enough to make it meaningful.
Even if they beat the Buffaloes in Boulder, the Utes would require help from one of Arizona State’s two remaining opponents to earn a berth in the Pac-12 championship game. Yet getting to this point is an achievement, after the Utes lost to Washington and Washington State in September to open conference play.
“It's a credit to our players,” coach Kyle Whittingham said during his weekly news conference Monday. “We haven't been perfect; we've obviously stumbled along the way, but they're resilient. They keep coming back. … That's a trademark of this football team for certain, their ability to respond to adversity.”
NO. 21 UTAH AT COLORADO
When • Saturday at 11:30 a.m.
TV • Pac-12 Networks
Whittingham pointed to Utah’s fourth-quarter answer in last Saturday’s 32-25 win over Oregon as in-game evidence. The Utes fell behind 25-22 after a blocked punt led an Oregon touchdown, but redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley drove the Utes to a go-ahead touchdown on the next possession.
Matt Gay added his school-record sixth field goal of the game with 15 seconds remaining. For the third time this season, Gay was named tThe Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week.
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit ranked Whittingham’s work No. 1 among his “top coaching performances of the week,” after the Utes lost quarterback Tyler Huntley and running Zack Moss to injuries.
Colorado is struggling, having lost five straight games after a 5-0 start. But the Buffs are playing for bowl eligibility on senior day, so the Utes will need to summon another effort resembling their performance against Oregon — unlike their showing the previous week at Arizona State in a 38-20 defeat.
The Utes already would have clinched the South title if they had beaten ASU. Whittingham has described his team as being “in a funk” that day, after having won four straight games in October.
“I think our team plays best when there's a chip on their shoulder,” he said Monday. “That's been evident to me, when they feel like they've got something to prove or their backs are against the wall … our guys seem to handle that very well. I kind of like being in the position we're in.”
Utah (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) is a half-game ahead of ASU (4-3), but the Sun Devils own the tiebreaker. ASU plays Saturday night at Oregon and Nov. 24 at Arizona (4-3). The Wildcats remain in the race, going into Saturday’s game at No. 8 Washington State.
The Utes were in a similar spot in 2011, when USC was ineligible to play in the Pac-12 title game. Utah went into a home game vs. last-place Colorado with a four-game winning streak and needing a victory, plus losses by ASU (to Arizona) and UCLA (to USC). Those other outcomes went in the Utes' favor — but only after they lost 17-14 to Colorado, ending their hopes of appearing in the Pac-12′s inaugural championship game.
Utah lost star running back John White to an injury in the first half of that game and missed two tying field goal attempts in the fourth quarter.
Last November, the Utes beat Colorado 34-13, with each team needing a win for bowl eligibility. In 2016, Colorado earned the South title with a 27-22 win over Utah in Boulder. The Utes had been eliminated the previous week when Oregon upset them 30-28.
As for last weekend’s win over Oregon, senior linebacker Cody Barton was not surprised how his teammates responded to the absences of Huntley and Moss. “This whole group, we’re a bunch of fighters,” Barton said.
Moss' season-ending injury developed Wednesday at his residence as his knee “locked up on him,” according to Whittingham, citing a pre-existing condition.
That setback, coupled with Huntley's broken collarbone at ASU, was “weird, but we just took it for what it was,” Barton said. “We've got good guys behind them. No one blinked or worried or doubted this team, so it was all confidence going into the game.”
Shelley passed for 262 yards and ran for two touchdowns in his first start. Armand Shyne ran for 174 yards, a total topped only by Moss' 211-yard night at UCLA on Utah’s rushing chart this season.