Utes will need to perform like a genuine top 10 team at Washington

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) celebrates with Utah Utes offensive lineman Orlando Umana (50) after scoring a touchdown, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

As the clock approached midnight after his team’s 35-0 rout of California at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham offered a final thought Saturday to a media contingent that quickly ran out of questions and critiques about the Utes.

“Don't get bored,” Whittingham said, “with winning.”

That won’t happen. No. 9 Utah’s four-game winning streak either will be validated or made less meaningful by 9:30 p.m MDT next Saturday, just before the clocks change for the season. The convergence of Utah’s visit to Washington and USC’s hosting Oregon may decide the Pac-12 South race.

With a Utah win and a USC loss, the Utes would take over first place with a clear path to the title: a bye week, then games vs. UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. Any other outcomes would keep USC as the leader, at least owning the tiebreaker.

Each team is 4-1 in conference play. If they both finish 8-1, all the Utes can do is credit the Trojans, who beat them in Los Angeles in September. But if the Utes are not good enough to defeat unranked Washington, then they won’t deserve a top-10 ranking, Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl opportunity.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah a 47.1% of chance of beating Washington and gives USC a 36.3% shot vs. Oregon. If the Utes lose in Seattle, they would need USC to lose twice (UCLA also is contending at 3-2, with games remaining against Utah and USC).

The Utes almost enjoyed a perfect weekend, but USC rallied for a 35-31 win at Colorado. That development, plus a missed field goal in the last five minutes of a 35-point win, were the only things Utah wishes could be replayed. Whittingham acknowledged he over-coached that sequence, making kicker Jadon Redding wait with the clock running.

Otherwise, Utah's coaching staff again has done great work in October. Last year, the Utes scored 40-plus points in beating Stanford, Arizona, USC and UCLA. This month, they held Oregon State, Arizona State and Cal to a total of 10 points in Utah's best three-game defensive stretch since 1981.

November will define Utah’s season, just like last year — when the Utes lost at Arizona State to begin the month, but responded well and got the help they needed to win the South title. Such a sequence of events is less likely to be repeated, though.

Three takeaways

• Utah’s defense remains remarkable.

Disclaimers about the opponents are available, but Utah's giving up 10 points in three conference games is amazing. Oregon State scored a last-minute touchdown in a 52-7 loss; that's the only one the Utes have allowed in 14 quarters.

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.”

Washington will be less predictable than Cal, with a freshman quarterback making his first start. Yet holding any Power Five team to 83 total yards is stunning. That's the fewest yards Utah has allowed to a team playing at its same level of college football since Denver in 1952.


Shutouts in Pac-12 football games since the conference's expansion in 2011:

USC 50, UCLA 0 (2011).

Oregon 49, Arizona 0 (2012).

Stanford 48, Colorado 0 (2012).

UCLA 41, Oregon State 0 (2015).

Washington State 28, Colorado 0 (2017).

Utah 35, California 0 (2019).

• Utah’s quarterbacking situation played out nicely.

The Utes were inspired by senior co-captain Tyler Huntley's insistence on playing with a leg injury, and he performed well in the first half. Huntley's 214-yard passing night included a perfect, 40-yard delivery to Bryan Thompson for Utah's second touchdown.

Jason Shelley’s package of plays complemented Huntley’s work, and the Utes’ 28-0 halftime lead enabled the coaches to rest Huntley.

• What happens if the Utes need a field goal in a close game?

Redding is a capable kicker, but it is worth worrying about whether he could come through under big-time pressure. The offense’s effectiveness and Whittingham’s strategy have limited him to two field goal attempts in the past three games, with Utah leading by 35-plus points each time.

Player of the game

Zack Moss. What, not a defensive player? The problem with Cal's running only 43 offensive plays is that created few defensive statistics for the Utes, unlike Cal linebacker Evan Weaver's 22 tackles. And Utah's 15-game streak of getting a takeaway ended.

Moss deserves credit for his persistence. Cal held him to 17 yards (including a 4-yard touchdown) on seven carries in the first quarter, but he gained 98 yards (with a 10-yard TD) on his other 10 attempts.

Play of the game

Moss' turning a short pass from Huntley into a 69-yard play. Huntley had trouble fielding a low snap and could have aborted the play, but he ran to his right and found Moss open in the middle of the field. Moss sprinted down the left sideline to the Cal 6-yard line, leading to his first TD.

The play came in a 0-0 game, with Utah having punted on its first possession, and helped complete a 99-yard drive.

Up next

Washington was idle this weekend, after a 35-31 home loss to Oregon that dropped the Huskies to 5-3 (2-3 Pac-12). How will they respond to being out of the North race? Having a highly ranked opponent come to Husky Stadium should motivate them, and they’ll have the confidence that comes from wins of 21-7 and 10-3 (in the Pac-12 championship game) over Utah last season.


Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT.