Utah is not messing around, ransacking inferior opponents like UCLA

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) Utah fans celebrate a fumble recovery and touchdown during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Other than Utah’s frustrating loss to USC and an agonizing three-plus quarters in the win over Washington, cheering for the Utes this season is about as stress-free of an experience as fan could want from a college football team.

The Utes have won five Pac-12 games by 18-plus points each, and they also outperformed the odds in the five-point victory at Washington. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s critics point to games he shouldn’t have lost over the years or other times when the Utes failed to assert themselves against inferior opponents.

Yet if the 2019 season’s trend continues, Utah (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) will dominate Arizona and Colorado to conclude the regular season and meet Oregon for the Pac-12 championship, with big possibilities in play. The Utes’ latest statement came in a 49-3 ransacking of UCLA, the program’s biggest margin of victory in nine years of Pac-12 play. The Bruins — like Oregon State, Arizona State and California — were trending upward before running into Utah.


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The Utes are not messing around with these teams, and Whittingham likes their approach throughout the week. “I’ve said this all season long: I love coaching this group,” Whittingham said Saturday night, citing the team’s leadership. “I think I’ve had to yell maybe one time all year. Literally. They just take care of their business. It’s just a very mature group that knows how to operate.”

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Utes a 90.5% chance of winning Saturday at Arizona and a 38.1% chance of winning the conference title — although they likely need two more wins just to clinch the Pac-12 South title.

Three takeaways

• You should want Morgan Scalley protecting your home.

After surprisingly allowing 17 first-half points to Northern Illinois in the home opener, the Scalley-coordinated defense has played 11 halves of football at Rice-Eccles Stadium and given up a total of 19 points. NIU didn’t score in the second half and Idaho State was shut out all day, then Washington State scored 13 first-half points. Since then, the Utes have held WSU scoreless for a half, shut out California, and given up three points each to Arizona State and UCLA.

Other than Cal, then down to a third-string freshman quarterback, those offenses had done some good things prior to facing the Utes. Scalley's aggressive scheme created 81 yards in rushing losses for UCLA, offsetting 131 yards gained.

“They sent the house a pretty good amount of the time,” said UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. “There was a lot of pressure in my face.”

• Brant Kuithe is a valuable weapon.

Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s scheme is adjustable from one opponent to the next and is not designed to showcase any particular receiver. That can create an impression that players have been underutilized when they have breakout games, as Kuithe did with a career-high five catches for 132 yards vs. UCLA.

Yet with Tyler Huntley ranking No. 2 nationally in yards per passing attempt (11.5), the system is working. Kuithe is a matchup problem for defenses and the sophomore tight end is tied for the team lead with Demari Simpkins with 22 catches.

Thanks to Huntley's 335 passing yards, Zack Moss' 127 rushing yards and Kuithe's 132 receiving yards, the Utes had their first 300-100-100 production since the 2005 Emerald Bowl vs. Georgia Tech, with Brett Ratliff, Quinton Ganther and Travis LaTendresse.

• USC is making the Utes work for the South championship.

Utah's fundamental goal of winning the division title tends to be overlooked, amid the College Football Playoff potential. The Utes probably have to beat Arizona and Colorado just to claim the South title, because USC has defied forecasts of crumbling. The Trojans will finish 7-2 in conference play if they beat UCLA on Saturday, and they own the tiebreaker over Utah.

Oregon already has clinched the North title with two games to play. Of course, the CFP gives the Ducks (and Utes) plenty of incentive for the rest of November.

Player of the game

Julian Blackmon, safety. Scalley's scheme vs UCLA had Blackmon blitzing more than usual, and it worked. He finished with 12 tackles (nine solo), including 1½ sacks, plus a forced fumble that led to a touchdown. He also intercepted a pass in the end zone.

Blackmon's half-sack, as he teamed with safety Terrell Burgess, came on second and goal from the Utah 3 on UCLA's opening drive.

Play of the game

Defensive end Mika Tafua's 68-yard fumble return for a touchdown. The Bruins had reached the Utah 12-yard line and were threatening to cut the lead to 14-10 late in the second quarter. Blackmon chased Thompson-Robinson, who fumbled, with Tafua collecting one of Utah's five takeaways and rumbling to the end zone to make it 21-3.

Up next

The Utes will visit an Arizona team (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) that has lost five straight games, although the Wildcats can say they’re playing for bowl eligibility. Arizona lost 34-6 at Oregon late Saturday, posting 240 total yards to the Ducks’ 471.