Utah’s defense completed a phenomenal October performance Saturday night, producing the sixth shutout among all of the conference games played in the expanded Pac-12 – covering almost 500 contests in nine seasons. And that was not even the most remarkable part of the No. 12 Utes’ 35-0 defeat of California at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Compiling 28 points and 351 yards in the first half alone, the Ute offense shredded a Cal defense that held No. 11 Oregon to 17 points this month and had not given up more than 24 points to any opponent in more than a calendar year.
“We've got good players on offense, too,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, asked if he was surprised by his team's showing against one of the Pac-12's top defenses. “We knew we had a chance to run the ball, and that's where it starts with us.”
The Utes finished with 473 yards (242 passing, 231 rushing) to Cal's 83. Utah's controlling effort on both sides of the ball helped limit the Bears to 43 offensive plays.
Even factoring in Cal's weakened state with a third-string quarterback, Utah (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) looked sharp in advance of next Saturday's test at Washington to begin November. In October, the Utes dominated Oregon State, Arizona State and Cal by a combined 108-10. The defense's dominance began in late September, when Utah shut out Washington State in the second half.
Clearly, facing the Utah defense in his first career start was a lot to ask of Cal freshman quarterback Spencer Brasch, who was playing because of injuries to the Bears' top two QBs. Brasch looked fairly sharp on Cal's first possession, but then the Ute pass rush became overwhelming to match the school's “Dark Mode” promotion.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley “is a very, very, very smart man,” said Ute safety Terrell Burgess. “I think he knows what's coming before it comes, and he puts us in the right positions.”
Brasch completed completed 3 of 10 passes for 20 yards in the first half, a week after Arizona State freshman Jayden Daniels went 4 of 18 for 26 against Utah. Leki Fotu's 13-yard sack of Brasch almost negated Cal's passing yardage. And in the third quarter, Ute cornerback Josh Nurse's forced fumble on a blitz resulted in a 26-yard loss, even though Brasch recovered the ball.
“It’s a pretty solid scheme," Brasch said. "They were blitzing us in certain ways and we were just trying to pick them up. They had great coverage. Their secondary is nice and their front is phenomenal. They just beat us up and down the field”
A week after sitting out the fourth quarter vs. Arizona State with a leg injury, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley passed for 214 yards in the first half as the Utes delivered touchdown drives of 99, 90, 72 and 76 yards. Left tackle Darrin Paulo also started, after being injured against ASU. With a comfortable lead, rested Huntley in the second half.
Whittingham said he was not fully sure Huntley would play until the pregame warmup. “You could see he still wasn't 100 percent,” Whittingham said, “but he wanted to go. The offensive line was more determined than ever to protect him and take the hits off him.”
Zack Moss broke two more Utah career records, with his 32nd rushing touchdown in the first half and his 15th 100-yard game, achieved early in the third quarter.
The Utes' first-half flurry of points started with a drive from their 1-yard line. The play that launched it all was Huntley's 21-yard pass over the middle to tight end Brant Kuithe, who absorbed a tough hit and held onto the ball, even though he temporarily left the game.
Huntley then scrambled before locating a wide-open Moss, who took the short pass for 69 yards to the Cal 6. Two plays later, Moss ran for a 4-yard touchdown.
Huntley's 40-yard TD pass to Bryan Thompson on a well-executed, third-and-1 play made it 14-0, then backup quarterback Jason Shelley added a 1-yard run. Shelley made regular appearances in a run-oriented package, much as the Ute did against Washington State in September when Huntley was playing with a foot injury.
Shelley added a 1-yard TD pass to Kuithe in the last minute of the half.
Moss' 10-yard run made it 35-0 after three quarters, with Utah having posted 438 total yards to Cal's 59.
The Utes likely will return to the top 10 in the AP Top 25 on Sunday, thanks to losses by Oklahoma, Auburn and Notre Dame. Utah reached No. 10 in September before losing at USC.
The only negative aspect of Utah's weekend was USC's rally for a 35-31 win at Colorado, as the Trojans remained in a tie for first place with the Utes in the Pac-12 South. USC owns the tiebreaker, via that victory over Utah in September.
Some clarity regarding the race could come next Saturday, when Utah visits Washington and USC hosts No. 11 Oregon. Each team will be an underdog for the last time this season, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.
Utah’s other opponents are UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. USC also will play Arizona State, Cal and UCLA.