Ever since Utah launched Pac-12 play in 2011 by losing its first four conference football games, the Utes gradually worked their way toward a .500 record.
Utah’s break-even moment in the nine seasons could come Saturday at Washington, where the No. 9 Utes will face one of their toughest tests of this season. A win, coupled with a USC loss to No. 7 Oregon, would give Utah command of the Pac-12 South race and bring Rose Bowl possibilities into realistic view.
Winning in Seattle would be especially significant, because the Utes have beaten the Huskies only once in seven meetings in this decade, counting the loss in last November’s Pac-12 championship game. And a victory would give the Utes a 39-39 record in regular-season conference games, a major checkpoint in the program’s development.
NO. 9 UTAH AT WASHINGTON
Saturday, 2 pm. MDT
Moving from the Group of Five level in the Mountain West to the Pac-12 as a Power Five program was “like spanning the Grand Canyon,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said during his weekly news conference Monday. “It’s a big jump.”
The Utes (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) are 24-17 in conference games in the past five seasons, even with a dip to 3-6 in 2017. That season featured some close losses, including a 33-30 defeat at then-No. 16 Washington via a last-second field goal.
“It's been a long, hard journey, but I'm proud of the assistant coaches and the way they've just continued to recruit and build, year in and year out,” Whittingham said. “It's still a work in progress, though. You've never arrived.”
Whittingham figured his program could match up physically on the offensive and defensive lines when Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011. The Utes then lacked speed at the perimeter positions of receiver and cornerback, and they've “closed the gap considerably,” Whittingham said.
Utah’s secondary of cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Josh Nurse and safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess has played remarkably well during Utah’s four-game winning streak. Starting at halftime of a 38-13 win over Washington State, the Utes’ first-team defense has allowed only three points in 3½ games — and Arizona State’s field goal came after a fumble recovery at the Utah 18-yard line. The Utes held California to just 83 total yards in a 35-0 rout Saturday.
Utah’s defense will be tested by Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, a transfer from Georgia, and a receiving corps led by Aaron Fuller and tight end Hunter Bryant. In the Huskies’ last game prior to a bye week, Eason passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-31 loss to Oregon, with the Ducks fielding a good defense of their own.
Saturday’s game is a rematch of Washington’s 10-3 victory over the Utes for the Pac-12 championship. The only touchdown for the Huskies, then quarterbacked by Jake Browning, came via a 66-yard interception return of a deflected pass. Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss were sidelined by injuries.
“Two different teams, two different matchups,” Whittingham said. “We've got a lot of new faces, they've got a lot of new faces. … We certainly remember the sting of that loss. I'm not pretending like it never happened.”
The Utes also lost (21-7) to Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium in September 2018, when Huntley and Moss played.
Utah’s cumulative record in Pac-12 football games, after each season in the conference:
2011 – 4-5 (.444)
2012 – 7-11 (.389)
2013 – 9-18 (.333)
2014 – 14-22 (.389)
2015 – 20-25 (.444)
2016 – 25-29 (.463)
2017 – 28-35 (.444)
2018 – 34-38 (.472)
2019 – 38-39* (.494)
* – Through five games.
MIDDLE OF THE PAC-12
Conference records for Pac-12 football teams since conference's expansion in 2011:
Arizona State 42-35
Washington State 36-41
Oregon State 21-55