If the University of Utah football team was to be a legitimate Pac-12 South contender, it needed to deal with a two-game stretch of a trip to USC and a visit from Arizona State.
Nothing has gone according to plan for these Utes, but they’re here. A dominant win at the Trojans, a 35-21 come-from-behind win Saturday evening over the 18th-ranked Sun Devils, and Utah is 3-0 and in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South.
This Utah season will be marked by tragedy no matter how it ends, but the Utes (4-2, 3-0 Pac-12) have everything in front of them. Everything, meaning a division title, a trip to the Pac-12 championship game, the program’s first Rose Bowl berth.
Utah is playing well where none of that is far-fetched, especially in a season where the league, not just the division, feels like it is for the taking.
The biggest decision of the season
To be frank, the biggest decision of the season wasn’t much of a decision at all.
With the game tied 21 early in the fourth quarter, a Cam Rising pass on third-and-2 from the Arizona State 37-yard line intended for Devaugh Vele fell incomplete. At that point, Utah’s options were to send Jordan Noyes out there for a 54-yard field goal, or go for it on fourth down.
Kyle Whittingham said postgame that the chances and percentages of converting that fourth down were in favor of converting vs. trying the field goal. Fair enough, but put the chances and percentages aside for just a minute, and let’s go with mere common sense.
At that point, Utah’s offense was going downhill, having scored two third-quarter touchdowns on as many possessions. If you don’t hit that fourth down, you’re yielding good field position to Arizona State, but your defense was rolling downhill. The only choice, without debate, was to go for it.
On fourth-and-2 out of the shotgun, Rising hit Theo Howard on the left side for 14 yards and a first down at the 23. Two plays later, on first-and-goal from the 7, Rising hit Brant Kuithe for a 7-yard touchdown and Utah’s first lead of the night, 28-21, following a Noyes PAT.
Credit to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, because not only was going for it on fourth down the right move, but they were aggressive about it and ate up some yards. Well done.
The best, if not biggest drive of the night
For as spotty as Utah’s offense was in the first half, specifically a handful of drops and another small handful of poorly placed Rising passes, it hummed along nicely in the second half with four touchdowns in as many drives.
With that 28-21 lead, the defense forced a punt, and the offense then proceeded to methodically bleed the clock out.
Rising to Kuithe for nine on third-and-8 from his 20. Rising to Covey for 14 on second-and-11. Rising to Vele, who got his right hand on the pass before hauling it into his chest on a ridiculously athletic play, for 15 more. TJ Pledger with a 23-yard run, Pledger for seven more on the ground and an insurance touchdown with 2:39 to play.
In total, that drive went 12 plays, 82 yards and ate up 6:58 of clock, which marked the longest drive of the night by either team in terms of yards and time of possession. Seven runs, five passes. Rising was 5 for 5 for 48 yards on the drive, all five passing attempts were out of the shotgun. Of those five completions, Rising hit four different receivers.
That drive was everything Utah’s offense is capable of being. A capable rushing attack behind an improving offensive line, and a potent passing attack with a multidimensional talent at quarterback.
Rising in the second half: 13 for 15, 140 yards, two touchdown passes.
The defense was tremendous in the second half
Arizona State had 97 yards of total offense in the second half, which is noteworthy because it had 288 and was getting anything and everything it wanted in the first half.
The Utes sacked Jayden Daniels four times in the second half, including Devin Lloyd on the final two plays of the game, which is also noteworthy because Daniels, more than any other quarterback in the Pac-12, is electric when he leaves the pocket with the ball.
To contain Daniels and not let him get to the edge is hard, and there is no legitimate way to prepare for that during the week.
“He’s an elite quarterback, one of it not the best in the Pac,” Lloyd said. “Obviously, you have to keep your rush-lane integrity and play assignment-sound football. It really comes down to assignment football, getting after him, making him uncomfortable in the pocket, but more than anything, everybody just doing their job.”
Daniels finished 20 for 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns and zero interceptions, but he had just 32 yards on 14 carries. He was unspectacular, but he was solid and mistake-free, but Utah did not let him go nuts, especially in the second half, which was the defensive key to this whole thing.
If Utah didn’t allow Daniels to operate at maximum capacity, it was going to have at least a chance to win this game.
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Let’s nitpick some things
Rising was outstanding in the second half, but this game threatened to go the other way early, partly because Rising missed some throws, but also because his receivers didn’t help him out.
The glaring example came on first-and-10 at the Arizona State 36 with the game tied at 7 early in the second quarter. Rising had Howard deep down the left sideline, but overthrew him on a pass that would have gone for a touchdown. On the very next play, Rising threw his first interception of the season over the middle on a play in which tight end Cole Fotheringham appeared to slip and fall down.
Rising was intercepted again later in the quarter, this one on a pass where the ball went through Kuithe’s hands. There was another overthrow mixed in there, plus a pass or two there were simply inaccurate. They were all throws Rising has made, and will make again.
The other big nitpick that stands out was, yes, the defense was awesome for two quarters, but it gave up 385 yards for the night, one week after giving up over 400 to USC. The defense was very good in the second half of that game, too, but those types of defensive numbers are untenable if the Utes are going to keep this thing rolling.
Consider what the last three weeks have been
With Utah alone in leading the Pac-12 South, I think it is important to take a step back and remember what has gone on here the last three weeks.
Aaron Lowe was shot and killed early Sept. 26. There was a candlelight vigil on campus in his name on Sept. 29. An arrest was made in connection with Lowe’s death on Oct. 3. Utah beat USC at the LA Coliseum for the first time on Oct. 9. The team traveled to Dallas for Lowe’s funeral on Oct. 11. Utah beat Arizona State on Saturday after a bit of a truncated work week and is now in charge of the division race.
Forget the football momentarily. That’s a lot for these players to be doing this for the second time in nine months. It’s a lot for the adults in charge of those players to be steering them through tragedy, while also having to deal with their own anger, their own emotion, their own grief.
After all that, yeah, there’s a football season to play, and there’s a lot that goes into that on a daily and weekly basis. None of this is easy, and while much of what’s going on in terms of grief with this football program is not for public consumption, some of it is, which doesn’t make it any easier.
Kudos to everyone over there for dealing with what they’re dealing with, all while putting together two monstrous wins. Surely, none of us truly have any idea how hard any of it has really been.
Other things on my mind
• Vonte Davis played and started Saturday with a cast on his left hand. The senior safety said postgame he had the cast put on last Sunday, which indicates he was hurt at USC. What the actual injury is is unknown.
• The offensive line played well, sans Jaren Kump, who was replaced at left tackle by Bam Olasaeni. Offensive line was the biggest question mark a month ago, and has now turned into a strength, just like Whittingham believed it would be.
• Arizona State, which is quite good and can still win the Pac-12 South, is very undisciplined. The Sun Devils had 13 penalties for 115 yards, both of which should be considered unacceptable, especially for a team of that caliber.
• A trip to Corvallis to face Oregon State looks like much more of a task for Utah than it did six weeks ago. The Beavers have looked good, certainly better than expected, and are not going to be a pushover. Amazingly, this is a potential preview of the Pac-12 championship game.
• Utah has the tiebreaker over Arizona State, which has a tiebreaker over UCLA. The biggest game of the season in the South Division is now UCLA’s visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 30. A kickoff time and a broadcast designation for that one should be released on Monday. That game smells like a prime-time kickoff on a channel that is not Pac-12 Networks.
• Tavion Thomas should be touching the ball no fewer than 15 times per game. That is where the running back situation is at the midway point of the season. It’s Thomas, with Pledger behind him. For what it’s worth, Pledger started on Saturday, but Thomas had 20 carries and did a nice job of picking up the blitz a couple of times.
• Britain Covey’s 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty came at a very inopportune time — Utah trailing 21-14 and driving for the tie — but it will go down as a lighthearted moment because Rising hit Kuithe for a 20-yard score on the very next play. If Covey flexes in your face, you might have to quit the sport.