As Zack Moss churned 32 yards downfield, crossing into the end zone with 5:24 left in the game, everything seemed a little more the way it should be.
Moss took in hugs from his teammates, Rice-Eccles Stadium roared, what with the Utes on their way to finishing a win over Arizona State, the numbers on the board — 21-3 — evidencing the fact, avenging a couple of losses from seasons gone by at the hands of a tough conference foe. And, in that moment, Utah looked like the formidable team everyone figured it would and should be. The world sat properly on its axis, spinning a little more true.
For Utah football, a lot was well. Not all, but a whole lot.
Except for one little detail, a question that was only enhanced as the Utes did their adequate business, especially on defense, on Saturday night.
What the hell happened against USC?
The more Utah tastes victory, now having taken three straight games by the combined count of 111-23, jacking its record to 6-1, 3-1 in conference, the deeper those six words with the question mark cut. Football strategists might be able to answer the question from a technical standpoint — the Utes didn’t abandon their classic man-press coverage and fall back into zone soon enough, the way they should have — but not from a collective one, the kind that measures the far reaches of what a team can achieve.
That’s on display now.
What the Utes are capable of is sufficiently handling their opponents.
Teams like Arizona State.
Their effort here wasn’t perfect, including a couple of fumbles in Devils territory in the first quarter that might have put this thing away early. Instead, they made the decision a matter of time, going up 14-zip at the half. By then, it was clear that ASU couldn’t consistently move the ball, could neither move around or pass over Utah’s Maginot Line. There was no Belgium to skirt through.
At that juncture, the Utes had gained 235 yards and the Sun Devils had all of 42. At game’s end, it was 342-136.
Only Utah’s mistakes gave ASU any chance.
There was another fumble — this one by Tyler Huntley — midway through the third quarter that set up the Devils at the Utah 18-yard line. Even then, they settled for a field goal. An interception thrown by Huntley, his first of the season, cost the Utes no points.
“Our defense was lights out tonight,” Kyle Whittingham said.
He was right. That was the highlight, along with Moss breaking Utah’s all-time rushing record, on the aforementioned play. The rain-soaked crowd gave him a nice hand to mark the accomplishment.
“Just grateful,” was how Moss answered afterward, when he was asked how that record felt, especially after a head injury took him out for a few minutes.
That was part of a frightening sequence in the second quarter, when Huntley got popped, hobbling off the field. A couple of plays later, Moss was targeted by the Devils’ Evan Fields. Fields was ejected and Moss wobbled to the sideline.
“I was fine,” Moss said. “Took a nice little hit.”
Inside of a minute, it looked as though the Utes might have lost their two biggest offensive stars. But both returned, and played, although Huntley was replaced later. There was no update on his hurt leg.
As Whittingham lifted a toast to his defense, he said this of his offense, obviously bothered by the turnovers: “It did enough to win the game.”
Bottom line: Mistakes or no, the Utes are rounding into shape.
There is work yet ahead, and they know it. They say they learned their lesson on that fateful Friday night in September at the Coliseum, burping up their hiccup, setting themselves against allowing it to happen again. Without that belch, Utah would be ranked in the Top 10 and be talked about as a dark horse in the race for a spot in the college football playoff.
No need for them to dwell on that for too long, only long enough to use it on occasions like Saturday’s, against a quality division opponent, helping them to focus on what is directly in front of them and forcing their way to victory.
Cal and Washington are next up, followed by other Pac-12 opponents the Utes should beat. But as they now know, should’s got nothing to do with it. Should will turn its back on them, kick them in the teeth and laugh at their pain. Should is fickle and can, at any time, betray them.
The world can be bumped back off its axis, if it is allowed to.
The talented Utes have no intention, come what may, of letting that happen. That much, as much as anything else, was apparent on Saturday night.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.