After everything the Utes have been through this season — defeat, disruption, departures, despair, and the deepest of all tragedies, death — here they were on Saturday night, playing on their home field, against Arizona State, working hard, dialing and digging in, forcing all of the hurt out of their hearts and minds and souls, positioning themselves to take over the lead in the Pac-12 South, still dreaming of doing something they’ve never done before …
Win the freaking league title and go to the Rose Bowl.
With much more work ahead, they have a chance to do so. A good chance. They’ve given themselves that chance and, just as significantly, permission to pursue it.
All of it is most impressive.
Unbeaten now in the Pac-12, at 3-0, it’s a remarkable journey Utah is traveling, an arc it is ascending up and up and over. No matter how talented or untalented the Utes are, and everyone’s still trying to figure exactly where they are on that spectrum, they are something even more important — undaunted.
The adversity they’ve faced has steeled them in a way nothing else could. They might have just as easily crumbled.
But they haven’t and didn’t, not earlier against other Pac-12 opponents, nor against the Sun Devils on this night, the final score here resting at 35-21, ending a week in triumph at Rice-Eccles that began with tear-drenched goodbye services in Texas.
Points on a scoreboard can’t begin to measure that kind of resilience.
But they’re all that anybody has to count.
Twenty-eight of those Utah points came in the second half, after it trailed by 14 at the break, looking nothing short of hapless and defeated up until that juncture.
What they looked thereafter was … unbeatable.
A lot of us doubted these Utes after losses to BYU and San Diego State, thought their quarterback situation was a mess, believed their receivers to be a weakness, wondered whether the run game could carry the weight of past excellence and expectation, suspected that even the defense, the meat and marrow of Utah football, was in some degree of tatter.
Um … not anymore.
What should we say?
No, there’s a better reaction.
This team deserves an apology, not just after and for the way it has defeated Washington State, USC and now ASU. But for the manner in which it has congealed. That, too, is the wrong way of saying it. They haven’t cooled, at all. The manner in which it has coalesced. That will do.
The Utes have unified around the adversity that fell upon them and that plagues them, still, and that will go on plaguing them because … it should. When death claims a teammate, you don’t just pick up and go on, you pick up a thousand heavy, heartfelt memories and go on.
So, they have.
They stared down a gifted, yet bumbling Arizona State team on this occasion, absorbed what the Devils could throw at them and powered up and through.
The proceedings of this game are a reflection of the bounce back of their season — initially troubling and now tremendous, inspiring, even.
They took the punches ASU could dole out through those first two quarters and then, whatever was said in the locker room, they took it to heart, storming onto the field through the third and fourth periods, not just outscoring ASU, 28 to nil, but doing it according to the script Utah football has been built upon for years.
The Utes made the commitment to run the ball, not giving up on the pass, but utilizing their ground game to the form of the oldest cliche in all of football — run the ball to set up the pass.
In the first half, they did not do that, favoring instead a more newfangled approach, chucking the ball around the yard. In a sloppy game, a game of missed assignments by both teams, of missed tackles, missed open receivers, and dropped passes, and of penalties — on one play four flags hit the turf — that strategy didn’t work.
As much as it has become apparent that Utah has to pass the ball more effectively to get to the top of the Pac-12, it’s even more apparent the Utes have to run the football well to avoid the bottom of it.
That’s the argument that has hovered over the Utes through the past few years, in two of which they went to the Pac-12 championship game, but couldn’t win it. Pass, run or … both?
In the first half, Cam Rising threw 18 passes, looking good at times, but suffering two interceptions as Utah fell behind.
In the second half, Utah’s run game took over, led by Tavion Thomas, Rising … and others.
On the Utes’ first possession of third quarter, they capped a scoring drive with a seven-yard run by Thomas. There were six runs, three passes on that move down the field. Thomas ran, Rising ran, along with passes to two tight ends and a wide-out.
Utah’s deficit was erased, the score leveled midway through the third quarter, on a Rising to Brant Kuithe touchdown pass. That drive included four runs and three passes, one of the throws drawing a pass-interference call against the Devils.
When the Utes ran the ball well, everything else got easier. It ignited the whole team. It had the effect of settling Rising, who ended the game with passing totals of 21 completions on 33 throws for 247 yards, 2 TDs and the aforementioned 2 picks. What’s more, the defense came alive, after giving up far too much yardage earlier in the game.
The Utes blew through for two more touchdowns, all as Arizona State collapsed on itself.
Utah dominated the back half of this game the way only an inspired, hardened, disciplined, determined team would or could, a team that had been given permission by the family of its fallen teammate — Aaron Lowe — to go ahead and play, a team that had been granted the same license by its own collective selves to keep his memory close, but to also go fulfill its potential, to be what it can be, what it should be, what it is.
A helluva football team with a helluva story this season, a story that has no ending written yet, but whatever that ending is, whatever it is to be, it will be easier to consume, more soothing to the heart and mind and soul, than the chapters that already have been written.
That much is certain.