Tucson, Ariz. • Utah punter Ben Lennon never set foot on the field until midway through the fourth quarter Saturday night and the Ute defense made sure Arizona’s place-kicker was needed only in the last two minutes.
That personnel report illustrates Utah 35-7 victory as much as any numbers could do, even while the Utes produced another set of phenomenal statistics in barely missing their third shutout of the season. Utah's offense posted 500-plus total yards for the fifth time.
The Utes walked out of Arizona Stadium believing they should have scored even more points after moving the ball relentlessly all night, but that just shows how high this team's standards have become. Utah's first eight drives ended with five touchdowns, two fourth-down stops and an interception. After three quarters, Zack Moss had run for 203 yards (giving him 1,158 for the season) and Tyler Huntley had passed for 200 yards.
The Utes (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) blanked California in October for the only the sixth conference-game shutout in the Pac-12's nine seasons of existence, and they almost delivered another one. Arizona (4-7, 2-6) lost a sixth straight game, while being stopped twice on fourth-down plays in the third quarter. The Wildcats' touchdown came on quarterback Grant Gunnell's 7-yard run with 1:50 remaining.
Utah could have made a bigger statement in the first half, beyond leading 14-0. “The scoreboard didn't say much to that effect,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged.
So the Utes' approach in the second half was “just come out and dominate,” Moss said. “We felt like they were hanging around a little bit too much. The score was only 14-zip. We wanted to come and score some points, and that's what we did.”
Even with their late scoring drive against Utah's reserves, the Wildcats posted only 196 total yards, including 61 rushing yards. Stopping the run is what the Utes do, better than any team in the country. “We take a lot of pride in it,” linebacker Francis Bernard said. “Going into every single game, we try to make every team one-dimensional. When we can do that, there's not a whole lot of team that can beat us.”
So the Utes never were in danger of a disaster in Tucson that would have knocked them out of the College Football Playoff – and, worse, cost them a Pac-12 South championship.
That division-title opportunity remains in front of them, going into next Saturday’s game vs. Colorado. The Utes have to win to overtake USC (7-2 in the Pac-12), after the Trojans concluded their regular season with a victory over rival UCLA.
The biggest question of the weekend from Utah's Playoff perspective revolves around what happened early Saturday night, 110 miles up Interstate 10 in Tempe. Oregon's 31-28 loss to Arizona State likely eliminates the Ducks from the CFP, after they were ranked No. 6. The Ducks' defeat also will devalue a potential Utah victory in the Pac-12 championship game, Dec. 6 at Santa Clara, Calif.
Would that be enough to keep a 12-1 Utah team out of the Playoff? Not necessarily. But it is fair to say the Utes would have gained more from Oregon winning, than by moving ahead of the Ducks in the CFP rankings, as will happen Tuesday.
“Whatever else is happening is none of our business,” Whittingham said, concerning himself only with his team's next opponent, Colorado.
The primary effect of Oregon's loss is the Utes actually would have to win the Pac-12 title to earn a Rose Bowl berth, rather than have it become a consolation prize in the event of the Ducks making the Playoff.
In any case, the Utes did their part against Arizona, unlike what happened in 2015 when an 8-1 Utah team that was ranked No. 10 in the CFP lost to the Wildcats in double overtime in Tucson.
The Utes led 14-0 at halftime, although as Whittingham said, they hardly got the point value that a 291-56 advantage in total yards would suggest. Arizona recorded only three first downs and held the ball for less than eight minutes in the half, yet was not out of the game – thanks to two fourth-down stops.
Utah scored touchdowns on its first two drives, via tight end Brant Kuithe's 3-yard run and Huntley's 3-yard pass to Demari Simpkins.
The Utes kept moving the ball consistently, but they were denied on a fourth-and-1 play at the Arizona 24-yard line. Utah then got to the Arizona 1 with one second remaining, but Moss was stuffed on the final play after rushing for 136 yards in the half.
Utah’s offense responded emphatically to start the third quarter, as Moss ran 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0. Kuithe’s second TD run added to the lead in the third quarter and TJ Green ran for another score early in the fourth period.