Utah’s 21-7 loss to Washington in September is the game that changed the Utes' offensive approach this season, after receiver Britain Covey suggested his group lacked an identity.
The Huskies' visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium for Utah's “Blackout” game also is remembered as the night when Covey survived, somehow.
Washington’s sound, hard-hitting defense held the Utes to a season-low 261 total yards, making coach Kyle Whittingham, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and the rest of the world recognize they needed to do something different. The Utes responded with more of a run-oriented scheme that produced improvement in a loss at Washington State to end September, then they won seven of their next eight games and claimed the Pac-12 South title.
No. 17 Utah (9-3) earned another shot at the No. 10 Huskies (9-3) in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Washington's secondary entered the season known as the best group in the country. Those guys made a lasting impression on Covey, who has managed to keep playing all season. His eight catches accounted for only 54 yards, while he absorbed all kinds of punishment from the Huskies. He acknowledged that night only that he “got the wind knocked out of me about 12 times, but I'll be OK.”
In advance of Friday's reunion with Washington's defensive backs and linebackers, Covey said, “You can't let that get to your head. You've got to play the same way you always play.”
PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UTAH VS. WASHINGTON
When • Friday, 6 p.m. MST
TV • Ch. 13.
The rematch is a natural story line. In the eighth season of Pac-12 title games, this is the sixth pairing of teams that met earlier. Only once has the regular-season loser won the title game; Oregon routed Arizona in 2014 after being upset on the road in early October.
The most extreme case of a rematch came in 2012, when Stanford beat UCLA in consecutive weeks. Stanford and USC, teams that traditionally meet in September, produced sweeps in the 2015 and '17 seasons. USC's victory in Santa Clara last December marked the first time a South school won the championship.
That's the trend the Utes hope to extend, while reversing their September outcome against Washington. There's a lot to relive about that game, with the biggest takeaway being that the Utes believe they're a much different team 11 weeks later.
“I feel like we've really found our identity on offense,” Covey said this week. “We've been able to put guys in position to succeed a lot better than we did the first couple games, because we know our team.”
The twist is that maximizing the ability of running back Zack Moss was the centerpiece of Utah's altered approach, and Moss was lost for the season to a knee injury in early November. Quarterback Tyler Huntley also was injured this month after helping the Utes go 4-0 in October; Huntley should be be available for a bowl game, Whittingham said Monday.
The Utes have won their last three games with running back Armand Shyne and quarterback Jason Shelley as featured players, while the offense has thrived with a run-first approach, mixing in long passes. That's precisely the formula Whittingham outlined the Monday after the loss to Washington, while fielding repeated questions about the offense's direction. Whittingham said he wanted an offense that avoided turnovers, ran the ball with a physical aura and still possessed “big-play capability” in the passing game.
That strategy has worked, although BYU held Utah's offense scoreless until the last minute of the third quarter Saturday and the Utes finished with 296 total yards. Even so, the Utes scored touchdowns on their last four drives, winning 35-27.
In September, Utah drove 80 yards for a first-quarter touchdown vs. Washington, but otherwise struggled. Whittingham's enduring image of that game is “just that we couldn't get much generated on offense,” he said.
The second half was especially frustrating for the Utes. Covey and receiver Bronson Boyd each lost a fumble in the third quarter after making a catch for a first down. A late-hit penalty (with targeting) on defensive tackle Leki Fotu took away linebacker Cody Barton's interception, sustaining Washington's only scoring drive of the second half, after the Utes already had lost safety Marquise Blair to targeting in the first half.
After defensive tackle Pita Tonga intercepted a Jake Browning pass, Tonga dropped the the ball out of bounds while running toward the end zone. The Utes should have scored anyway, but tight end Connor Haller dropped Huntley’s pass on fourth down.
Utah got the ball back at the Washington 28-yard line after a short punt, but a holding penalty canceled a pass completion and the Utes again were stopped on fourth down. All of those elements conspired to hold them to seven points.
Even after that slow start, Utah ended up averaging 30 points in Pac-12 games, a breakthrough for the program. Producing that many points will be difficult against the Huskies, who allow 16.5 points to rank No. 8 nationally in scoring defense.
Friday's Pac-12 championship game will be the sixth rematch of a regular-season meeting. Past results (with the previous game's score):
2012 • Stanford 27, UCLA 24 (Stanford 35, UCLA 17).
2013 • Stanford 38, Arizona State 14 (Stanford 42, ASU 28).
2014 • Oregon 51, Arizona 13 (Arizona 31, Oregon 24).
2015 • Stanford 41, USC 22 (Stanford 41, USC 31).
2017 • USC 31, Stanford 28 (USC 42, Stanford 24).