How the Utes won the Pac-12 South title for the second straight year

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Tyler Huntley (1) passes under pressure for a fourth-down conversion in a September win over Washington State.

Utah’s first Pac-12 South championship came with considerable drama, after the Utes lost their first two conference games last season, then had to beat Oregon and Colorado in November without offensive stars Zack Moss and Tyler Huntley.

The Utes’ second title, taking them into Friday’s Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon, also required some regrouping and an even stronger finish. A loss to USC in Utah’s conference opener meant that eight straight wins would be needed to overtake the Trojans in the standings, and the No. 5 Utes came through.

The players were “very disappointed, very angry and very focused after that game,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, “and understood that the margin for error was virtually nothing. It was a good mix of anger and feeling disappointed. You don't want to hang your head and have it carry over into the next week of practice.”

Senior defensive end Bradlee Anae said the 30-23 defeat in Los Angeles “brought us down to earth” and receiver Demari Simpkins described the team's attitude as “more relentless.”

Simpkins added, “We just didn't want to leave [any] doubt. Everybody doubted us after that loss, and we just had something to prove.”

Asked during his news conference Monday to pinpoint a defining game for his team, Whittingham made a somewhat surprising choice: a 52-7 win at Oregon State. The Utes “really just cut loose,” he said, in an overwhelming effort that made him realize “this team has a chance to be special.”

The Utes won those eight games by an average of 29 points, with only a 33-28 victory at Washington being decided in the fourth quarter. Here are three critical moments of the Utes' Pac-12 schedule:

Washington State, second quarter, Sept. 28

In the game that followed the loss at USC, a field goal had cut Utah's lead to 14-13 with 3:31 remaining in the first half, and the Washington State offense was moving consistently. The Utes' first priority was to keep the ball for the rest of the half. They accomplished that via quarterback Tyler Huntley's 41-yard pass to Solomon Enis on a third-and-12 play, and kept going.

Utah faced fourth and 1 at the WSU 29. Huntley is No. 3 nationally in yards per passing attempt (11.1), but a mere 1-yard completion was his most important play of this game. He was swarmed by rushers, but managed to toss the ball to running back Devin Brumfield (Moss missed the game due to injury), who plowed ahead for the necessary yard.

Huntley finished the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run and Utah pulled away in the second half of a 38-13 win.

Arizona State, fourth quarter, Oct. 19.

With the Ute offense uncharacteristically losing four turnovers, Arizona State was within 14-3 early in the fourth period and had a first down at the Utah 26. Tackles by safety Julian Blackmon and linebacker Devin Lloyd and Anae's pass deflection forced a field goal attempt that went wide.

ASU never threatened again, and Utah secured a 21-3 win with Moss’ TD run.

Washington, fourth quarter, Nov. 2.

Jaylon Johnson’s interception return for a touchdown had cut Washington’s lead to 21-19, and Utah’s offense would do its part in the fourth quarter in Seattle. On third and 12 from the Ute 35, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s design of a deep route from a three-receiver bunch on the left side resulted in Jaylen Dixon’s breaking free and catching a 41-yard pass from Huntley.

Huntley’s 1-yard TD run capped the 82-yard drive, then his third-down passes to Enis and Samson Nacua extended an 84-yard production as the Utes moved ahead 33-21. They absorbed Washington’s late score as Blackmon recovered an onside kick. That night, Oregon’s rout of USC knocked the Trojans below Utah in the South standings — and they stayed there, thanks to Utah’s wins over UCLA, Arizona and Colorado.

USC swept its five South rivals this season, but finished 7-2 in conference play with losses to Washington and Oregon. And for the second year in a row, Utah lost to the second-place team, but got just enough cooperation to win the title. The Utes also did everything they had to do, in those eight games.


Friday, 6 p.m. MST

TV: Ch. 4