Fireworks filled the cold November air above Rice-Eccles Stadium after Utah’s No. 6-ranked football team delivered an overwhelming performance over the last three quarters Saturday night vs. Colorado.
A network TV audience just becoming acquainted with the Utes might have wondered about them in the first quarter, when they fell behind by seven points. So did a home crowd that stewed about everything that could have fallen apart, regarding the Utes and their postseason future.
Yet anyone who has witnessed the Utes' recovery from a September loss at USC to begin Pac-12 play should have known to have more confidence in them. Just to summarize their conference season, the Utes stormed to another Pac-12 South championship via an eighth straight win, 45-15.
The Utes (11-1, 8-1) will meet Oregon (10-2, 8-1) in the Pac-12 title game Friday in Santa Clara, Calif., with a Rose Bowl berth — or, in Utah’s case, a potential College Football Playoff spot — available to the winner.
“We still have a lot more games left, I feel like,” sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe said after scoring three touchdowns and helping to save Senior Day for his 19 graduating teammates. Colorado (5-7, 3-6) was denied bowl eligibility.
Utah's veterans did more than their share, as usual. Senior quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 14 of 17 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns and defensive end Bradlee Anae's 1½ sacks gave him a tie for the school career record (29½). The Utes also got touchdowns from running back Zack Moss and receiver/punt returner Demari Simpkins, the other members of the Hallandale Trio as Huntley's Florida high school teammates.
The seniors' last Rice-Eccles Stadium appearance was emotional for them and those who have worked watched them play. “I almost … well, I did cry, I'm not going to lie to you,” Simpkins said.
Coach Kyle Whittingham expressed his appreciation to the seniors at the team hotel in the afternoon and said after the game, “I'll probably get choked up right now if I start talking about 'em. There's so many players that will go down in Utah history for years to come.”
The pregame ceremony may have played into the Utes' slow start. For one quarter, Utah's showing resembled 2011, when Colorado's upset kept the Utes from qualifying for the Pac-12 title game. The rest of the night was strictly 2019 material. Colorado gained only 125 yards in the last three quarters.
“No, not worried, but not pleased,” Whittingham said, asked about his team's uncertain beginning. “We knew we could play better, and we knew we were not ourselves.”
Utah fans could be forgiven for believing this exercise would be easier from the start, considering the Utes were four-touchdown favorites and had dominated visiting opponents this season. So there was some uneasiness when the Utes netted 16 yards on their first nine offensive plays. Colorado's first-quarter drive produced the first touchdown for a visiting team since Washington State's first-half score in late September, covering 14 quarters of football.
Having produced 27 yards and one first down in the first quarter, the Utes earned a 7-7 tie early in the second period. Huntley avoided the rush, rolled to his right and found Kuithe open in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown.
On the Utes' next drive, Kuithe took a handoff on a third-and-1 play and ran 44 yards to the Colorado 7. Huntley then hit him for a go-ahead touchdown. Anae's 12th sack of the season gave the Utes another possession before halftime, and they added Jadon Redding's 23-yard field goal to make it 17-7.
Utah further asserted itself in the third quarter, with one of those slow-death-by-Utes drives. The Utes took nearly seven minutes to travel 48 yards in 12 plays, with Devin Brumfield scoring from a yard out. Simpkins' 66-yard punt-return touchdown increased the lead to 31-7, and Utah was in command.
In the bigger picture of the College Football Playoff, the Utes got the break they needed when No. 5 Alabama lost 48-45 at rival Auburn. Utah figures to displace Alabama in the CPP rankings, just outside of the top four.