Utes in review: October is becoming a breakthrough month for Utah, and here comes USC

Utes' 42-10 win over Arizona in the annual ’Ute Proud' game sets up a big homecoming contest.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utes linebacker Chase Hansen (22) and Utes defensive back Marquise Blair (13) looks to tackle Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jamarye Joiner (10)as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 12, 2018.

In the first Ute Proud observance in November 2014, Arizona’s running game shredded Utah’s defense, Native American dancers performed in driving rain during halftime and Ute coach Kyle Whittingham walked onto the field in the closing seconds, preventing his offense from running one last play.

The entire day was well-intended, but ended under the worst circumstances: Arizona 42, Utah 10.

Four years later, the landscape looked entirely different. Utah's offense produced five touchdowns in the first 36 minutes, members of the Ute tribe celebrated their ties to the school on a crisp evening and Whittingham was involved in his 200th victory as a Utah staff member.

Friday night hardly could have gone better: Utah 42, Arizona 10.

So the Utes have won consecutive Pac-12 games for the first time since October 2016, when they started a three-game run by beating Arizona, and now their season gets even more interesting. USC will visit Rice-Eccles Stadium this coming Saturday.

After the Utes sang the school song with the student body and walked toward the locker room, the stadium public-address system for some reason played Earth, Wind & Fire's “September.” That month is mostly a bad memory. Utah (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12) has figured out something in October, producing 40-plus points and 400-plus yards against Stanford and Arizona. “We knew what we were capable of, all along,” receiver Britain Covey said. He cited “a lot of confidence and a lot of relief” among the offensive players, stemming from actually having done it.

Going into Saturday’s games elsewhere in the Pac-12, including USC vs. Colorado in a late contest, ESPN’s Football Power Index projected 8.6 wins for Utah. The FPI favors the Utes in all six remaining games, while allowing for the effect of probability.

Three takeaways

• With the disclaimers of Washington State’s disdain of running, Stanford’s Bryce Love being injured and Arizona’s having to pass after falling way behind, Utah’s run defense is becoming nationally elite. The Utes are allowing 75 rushing yards per game, while rotating seven or eight linemen who occupy blockers and make plays themselves. Behind them, linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton are very productive.

The pass rush improved Friday. With five sacks accounting for 25 yards, Arizona netted 72 rushing yards. Defensive end Maxs Tupai was involved in nine tackles, a big number for a lineman.

• Utah’s offense is making big plays. The Utes' success begins with Zack Moss' running, but he can’t carry the entire operation. Utah needs plays such as Tyler Huntley’s passes of 39 yards to Jaylen Dixon and 68 yards to Demari Simpkins, with Huntley’s 58-yard catch of Covey’s pass as a bonus.

• The Utes' highly regarded secondary remains off its game. Some percentage of No. 3 quarterback Rhett Rodriguez’s 226 yards passing was attributable to backup defenders. More disturbing is eight holding or pass-interference penalties against front-line players — mainly, cornerbacks Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson — in two games. The secondary will have to be sharper against USC quarterback JT Daniels and his receivers.

Player of the game

Huntley. Utah’s QB performed wonderfully, other than a poor decision of throwing back across the field and being intercepted. Playing three quarters, he totaled 323 yards of passing, running and receiving, accounting for four touchdowns. Runner-up: Hansen. He made eight tackles (including a sack) in the first half and personally took away Arizona’s hope of doing much offensively.

Play of the game

Ultimately, it may not have mattered in a game the Utes won convincingly. Yet Covey’s 9-yard catch on third and 8, via a tunnel-screen pass that required some weaving and breaking of tackles, sustained Utah’s first drive that ended with a touchdown instead of a field goal. Runner-up: Covey’s TD pass to Huntley for a 35-0 lead in the third quarter was more memorable, but less vital at the time.

Looking ahead

Whittingham was wishing USC and Colorado both could lose Saturday night. Regardless, the Utes pretty much have to beat USC to stay in the Pac-12 South race, whether that’s for the sake of owning the tiebreaker with the Trojans or remaining close to Colorado. That creates a meaningful homecoming game in a series that has produced dramatic finishes in three of the past four meetings.


When • Saturday, Oct. 20 6 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Networks.