Pasadena, Calif. • The Utah football team wishes only that October could last a little longer.
After asserting themselves in Friday night's visit to the Rose Bowl, the No. 23 Utes might be playing in this iconic stadium in January as Pac-12 champions. Utah overcame a wobbly start to dominate the last three quarters, winning a fourth straight game this month via a 41-10 defeat of UCLA.
A week after scoring 34 consecutive points against USC, the Utes staged a 38-3 run in just over a half of football to subdue the other Los Angeles school. Zack Moss rushed for a career-high 211 yards and three touchdowns in barely more than three quarters and the Ute offense easily topped 400 yards for the fourth game in a row.
On this same weekend a year ago, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham sat glumly in the interview tent after a decisive loss to Oregon concluded his team's 0-4 October. “Yeah, a miserable month,” he said in Eugene.
This October? Much better, from a Ute perspective. The Utes (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) scored 40-plus points in beating Stanford, Arizona, USC and UCLA (2-6, 2-3). Utah last hit the 40-point mark in four straight games in 2004.
“The positive is, we've really settled in as a team as to who we are, and we have rhythm offensively,” Whittingham said. “We're doing a great job of getting the ball to the playmakers, and it's fun to watch.”
• Utah beats UCLA for the third straight year, winning convincingly at the Rose Bowl.
• After going 0-4 in October 2017, Utah finishes this month 4-0.
• The Utes are 5-3 vs UCLA in the Pac-12 era; they also have five wins vs. Colorado, going into the 2018 meeting.
Whittingham credited Moss with “sheer toughness and will power” on some of his runs, especially in the second half.
Moss said running backs coach Kiel McDonald emphasizes getting stronger in second halves, and the junior did some of his best work in the third quarter as the Utes firmly took control of the game. The Utes finished with 325 rushing yards. Collectively, they approached Joe Williams' 332-yard total of two years ago vs. UCLA, an individual school record. Moss may have challenged that mark if the Utes had needed more from him in the fourth quarter.
Last season’s experience aside, Whittingham said he’s not consciously keeping track of month-by-month records. He just knows the Utes will go into November in their best position to win the Pac-12 South title, with only three conference games remaining — next Saturday at Arizona State, Nov. 10 vs. Oregon and Nov. 17 at Colorado.
Basically, Utah needs only to match USC's record in the last four games, although other variables could come into play and Colorado is not out of the picture.
The Utes swept the three California schools on this year's schedule and went from worst to solo first in the Pac-12 South, after having lost to Washington and Washington State in September.
The Bruins were competing with Game 3 of the World Series, staged 10 miles away. So this event became a Ute fan takeover of another school's venue, much like the team's visit to Stanford in early October.
The Utes started slowly, netting only three points from their first two scoring opportunities. Connor Haller's recovery of a muffed punt at the UCLA 5-yard line resulted in Matt Gay's 22-yard field goal, and then the Utes were turned away by an end-zone interception of Tyler Huntley after Moss' 60-yard run to the UCLA 12 and trailed 7-3 after one quarter.
Question persisted about why Moss was not getting handoffs near the goal line, although receiver Britain Covey's trick-play, 7-yard pass to tight end Cole Fotheringham gave the Utes their first touchdown. Moss then got multiple chances on Utah's next drive, following Covey's 30-yard punt return to the UCLA 36. Moss' 1-yard TD run made it 17-7 at halftime.
Moss ran for 131 yards in the half, accounting for more than half of the Utes' 218 yards.
In the third quarter, the threat of Moss enabled Huntley to thrive with run-pass options. Utah moved steadily to another short TD run by Moss, set up by Covey's 19-yard scramble on another designed pass play.
Cody Barton's interception, followed by Moss' inspired running, led to Armand Shyne's 2-yard TD run to make it 31-7 early in the third period, and the Utes' fourth win of October was secure.
Barton was thrilled with his interception, the first of his four-year college career. He made a spectacular play against Washington in September, but a teammate's late-hit penalty took it away.
The Utes' biggest failing was losing safety Marquise Blair to a second-half targeting call, meaning he'll miss the first half of next Saturday's game at Arizona State.
Utah ultimately looked like a team that’s good enough to win the Pac-12 championship and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. This is part is inarguable, anyway: The Utes are the South’s sole leaders, pending the outcome of Saturday’s USC-Arizona State game in Los Angeles. The Trojans, with No. 3 quarterback Jack Sears as their starter, can pull into a tie for first by beating ASU. Each team will have three conference games in November; Utah holds the tiebreaker, thanks to last weekend’s 41-28 win.