Utah football fans with good memories worry whenever an afternoon kickoff time is announced, knowing the Utes traditionally perform better under the lights of Rice-Eccles Stadium in the Pac-12 era.
Yet as darkness took hold in the second half Saturday, the Utes were fading. The initial glow of quarterback Jason Shelley’s first start dimmed and Utah fell behind Oregon, playing into a second-half trend of the team’s three defeats this season.
That’s what made Utah’s last two drives so impressive in a 32-25 victory. The offense had produced a total of 81 yards on five second-half possessions as of midway through the fourth quarter, when a blocked punt helped Oregon take a 25-22 lead.
Then the Utes came to life. “We don’t get nervous,” Shelley said. “We just play football.”
UTAH AT COLORADO
When • Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MST
TV • Pac-12 Networks
After passing for 178 yards in the first half, Shelley had posted only 24 yards in the second half, while being heavily pressured. But then he got hot, with completions on three straight plays — 11 yards to Cole Fotheringham, 36 yards to Jaylen Dixon and 13 yards to Brant Kuithe — leading to Shelley’s 2-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown.
After the Ute defense made a fourth-down stop via cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s pass breakup, the offense delivered again. Needing to get first downs and work the clock, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor gave the ball to Armand Shyne on five straight runs, covering 16, 6, 7, 4 and 20 yards to the Oregon 2. Utah settled for Matt Gay’s school-record sixth field goal of the game, but left the Ducks with only 15 seconds to respond.
The offense totaled six points in second halves against Washington, Washington State and Arizona State (mostly with quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, now injured). The Utes produced 114 yards and 10 points on Saturday's last two possessions, finishing a vital victory.
Utah (7-3, 5-3) can earn its first Pac-12 South title by winning Saturday at Colorado and having ASU lose to either Oregon or Arizona. That's not the only avenue for Utah, but it's the most direct route. USC was eliminated from the race after losing 15-14 to California. That left Utah alone in first place, ahead of ASU (4-3) and Arizona (4-3), although ASU holds a tiebreaker over the Utes.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah a 77.5-percent chance of beating Colorado. ASU’s winning probability is 37.1 percent at Oregon and 53.9 percent at Arizona. Saturday’s Utah-Colorado kickoff is at 11:30 a.m.; the ASU-Oregon game starts at 8:30 p.m. MST.
• Ever since August, a big issue for Utah’s offense is having a receiver emerge to complement Britain Covey. The latest answer is Fotheringham/Kuithe as a composite, freshman tight end. They combined for nine catches and 123 yards, nearly half of Shelley’s 262 yards passing.
• Utah’s defense wobbled in the third quarter, allowing two long drives the resulted in 10 points. Yet that group deserves credit for basically holding Oregon to 17 points, disregarding the 3-yard TD pass on the first play after the blocked punt. Oregon had 4 net yards as of early in the second quarter and finished with 405 yards.
“There may have been a few times when a guy wasn’t doing his job here and there, but but that happens, and we’ll clean it up,” said linebacker Chase Hansen, whose eight solo tackles included 3½ tackles for loss, giving him 19 for the season (tied for second in the country).
Ute cornerback Julian Blackmon was a target both of Oregon's passing scheme and Ute fans' criticism. In a creative response Saturday night, Blackmon tweeted a collage of comments and said, “Thank you.”
• If not for the offense’s strong finish, this game may have been remembered for missed opportunities. Gay’s 55-yard field goal to end the first half resulted from a nice drive and a great kick. But three of his field goals came after first-and-goal chances at the Oregon 5-, 1- and 2-yard lines.
Player of the game
Shelley. This selection is a vote for the most important drive: the go-ahead sequence or the clock-killing possession. Factoring in Shelley’s inexperience, in comparison to Shyne, the redshirt freshman QB merits huge credit. He looked skittish in the third quarter and threw a couple of would-be interceptions, but the Ducks failed to make those plays and he bounced back. Shelley also ran for Utah’s only touchdowns.
Runner-up: Shyne. Four runs accounted for 119 of his 174 yards; the other 22 carries netted 55 yards as the offensive line couldn’t create holes for him near the goal line. But he was brilliant on the last drive. “It reminded me of back when I was playing earlier, two years ago,” said Shyne, who had rushed for 166 yards this season in relief of Moss.
Play of the game
Johnson’s fourth-down deflection, with Utah leading 29-25. Utah’s strategy of having Johnson defend Oregon receiver Dillon Mitchell worked well, in a game-saving moment.
Runner-up: Dixon’s 36-yard catch on Utah’s go-ahead drive. A carom off Dixon near the end zone at ASU resulted in an interception, but he came through Saturday.
The history will be cited this week, how Utah lost to last-place Colorado in 2011, missing a berth in the Pac-12 championship game (with USC ineligible). The Utes have another shot, with the asterisk of needing help against ASU — as happened seven years ago.
Colorado is reeling with five straight losses after a 5-0 start and needs to beat Utah or California to become bowl-eligible. The Buffaloes will challenge Utah’s secondary, which allowed a total of 17 catches for 330 yards and five touchdowns to Mitchell and ASU’s N’Keal Harry. Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr. returned from a three-game injury absence to catch 10 passes for 102 yards in a 31-7 loss to Washington State.