In taking stock of what this University of Utah football season has been, the second half Saturday afternoon at No. 21 Colorado had to have been the most-satisfying half of the season if you’re a Utes fan.
Trailing 21-10 early in the third quarter after Buffaloes senior quarterback Sam Noyer hit freshman wide receiver Brenden Rice for a 61-yard touchdown, Utah didn’t give up another point.
The defense stiffened, and the offense continued to methodically get things done. The offensive line created big holes for Ty Jordan, giving Jake Bentley enough room to make sound decisions in the pocket.
A fourth-down stop with 4:54 to play and Utah leading, 27-21, followed by a 66-yard Jordan touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing Utes drive were the knockout blows. Utah beat Colorado, and it did so decisively with the closest thing to a 60-minute effort we’ve seen this fall.
Good for the fans. It’s been a long road over the past six weeks, so they deserved to take a long breath after a well-deserved win.
Utah hung in there, which is the sign of a good team: Between Rice returning a poor Ben Lennon punt 81 yards for a touchdown, and Noyer making a couple of important, quality throws, Colorado was in control, with momentum and the aforementioned 21-10 lead.
Utah started its next drive at its own 40. A 35-yard Jordan rush, Bentley to junior wideout Solomon Enis for seven yards, Jordan for 18 more, touchdown. Three plays, 60 yards, 1:25 off the clock, and the entire tone of the game changed.
Colorado went three-and-out, Utah then went 80 yards over 10 plays, capped by Bentley hitting Britain Covey in stride for a 20-yard score and a 24-21 lead the Utes never gave back.
Everyone stayed the course, everyone did their jobs, Bentley looked like the leader he has long been billed as, and Utah remains in contention for bowl-eligibility with one game to play.
The defense has surpassed any reasonable expectation: This topic was covered early last week, but with the defense pitching a shutout Saturday over the final 29:39, it’s worth mentioning again.
Through four games, with most of the country having played more than that, Utah has a top-35 defense nationally, yielding just 357.2 yards per game, which ranks second in the Pac-12 behind Washington’s 346.2 per game. The run defense, forever a staple at Utah, is giving up just 106 yards per game, No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally.
Nephi Sewell has played at an All-Pac-12 level during his first season at linebacker, true freshman strong safety Nate Ritchie had a sack and a fumble recovery on Saturday, and JT Broughton continues to show great promise at one cornerback spot.
Utah had to replace nine defensive starters from a year ago and plugged in two true freshmen, Ritchie and Clark Phillips III, into a secondary that had zero career starts among the five members. There is a ton of optimism that this defense will be elite down the road.
The Utes play defense, year and year out, regardless of personnel losses. Credit to defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and his position coaches for not letting that fact go by the wayside in this weird COVID-19 season.
A vintage Britain Covey performance: The redshirt junior receiver/return specialist took the opening kickoff 40 yards, setting Utah up with prime field position, which it used to score a touchdown on its first drive.
That play set the tone for what would be a classic Britain Covey performance. Nine catches for 76 yards and a touchdown and 88 yards on kickoff returns, all part of 210 all-purpose yards.
Covey is healthy, and when Covey is healthy, he is Utah’s most-electrifying offensive weapon, capable of doing significant damage every time he touches the ball. This is what offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig envisioned for Covey, getting him the ball in space, in a variety of ways, but Ludwig had to wait to unleash him as he dealt with hamstring trouble early in the season.
The shame of it is, it took Covey this long to get healthy, and the season is nearly over.
“This is just scratching the surface of the type of player that I can be,” Covey said. “Deep routes, short routes, running the ball, whatever it is, I feel like being healthy is helping me scratch the surface. This is not the best performance I plan on having in my career.”
Player of the game
Jake Bentley, grad. transfer, quarterback
For any talk of Bentley’s overall performance this season, including whatever accuracy issues there have been, Saturday was his finest performance of the season.
Bentley finished 20-for-32 for 240 yards, two touchdowns, and a second-quarter interception in which his arm was hit on the follow through. He made the short throws, the medium throws, he hit a couple of longer ones, he managed the game well and, save for the interception that wasn’t entirely his fault, he was mistake-free.
Whittingham noted postgame that Ludwig had a “pretty stern talk” at halftime with Bentley. That talk apparently made a difference as Bentley went 10-for-12 for 116 yards with a third-quarter touchdown pass to Britain Covey.
With each passing game, with each passing week of practice and preparation, Bentley has looked more comfortable within Ludwig’s offense. With Ty Jordan emerging out of the backfield and the rushing attack looking good, Bentley has not been asked to do a ton, but he was asked to expand his workload on Saturday, and he responded positively.
The Pac-12 announced Sunday morning that Utah will host Washington State on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium (11:30 a.m., Fox Sports 1).
When the Pac-12 announced Sept. 24 that it would play a shortened, no-bye seven-game schedule, the league scheduled the Pac-12 championship game for Dec. 18, with everyone else playing an inter-divisional game on Dec. 19.
With a win, Utah (2-2) would be bowl-eligible for the seventh-straight season.
USC and Washington are set to face off in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night (6 p.m., FOX), but the Huskies’ availability for Friday, or at all this week, is tenuous. Washington has been dealing with a programwide COVID-19 outbreak, which cost it a game at Oregon on Saturday.
One wrinkle to the weekend schedule is that Saturday’s Oregon-Colorado game will take place at USC, the site of the Pac-12 title game the previous night. The reasoning is, if Washington or USC cannot play in the title game on Friday, Oregon would replace the Huskies, Colorado would replace the Trojans, and both replacement teams would already be on site.