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Analysis: How Utah football stomped No. 3 Oregon, claiming the South title

Utes are 8-3 overall, 7-1 vs. the Pac-12 with one regular-season game left, Friday vs. Colorado at Rice-Eccles Stadium

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Of the four walls that make up the Rich and Holly Day news conference room at Rice-Eccles Stadium, two of them are made of glass. So, when Kyle Whittingham sits down to address the media, anyone on the other side of the glass in front of him or to his right can see him.

In the wake of an absolute decimation of No. 3 Oregon Saturday evening, Whittingham took his normal seat on a makeshift dais inside the news conference room. This time, those people on the other side of the two glass walls gave Whittingham an ovation, both before and after his 9-minute session.

That ovation was well-deserved. Well-deserved because of what the last two months have been for this football program, for what Saturday night was, for what this season can still be.

Whittingam will deflect all praise, but the truth of the matter is, this Pac-12 South title and this trip to the Pac-12 championship game under these conditions do not happen without someone at the top pulling all the right strings, pressing all the right buttons.

With Whittingham at the helm, Utah can now start planning a trip to Las Vegas in 12 days.

The final 27 seconds of the first half

Oregon kicker Camden Lewis hadn’t missed a field goal this season, but inside the first two quarters against Utah, he had one blocked by Cole Bishop, then pushed a 41-yard attempt wide right. Off the miss, the Utes went right down the field.

Cam Rising to Brant Kuithe down the middle for 49 yards, TJ Pledger with a 17-yard run down to the 5-yard line, Tavion Thomas scores from four yards out for a 21-0 lead with 27 seconds left on the clock.

At that point, knowing it would have the ball to start the third quarter, Oregon wanted to score, but incomplete passes on first and second downs gave way to a 7-yard Travis Dye run on third-and-10.

No one would have batted an eyelash if Whittingham had let the clock run out, but he instead called timeout with 11 seconds left. That put Oregon in a position where it had to punt, which would give Utah likely one more play before halftime.

The Utes never got that play because Oregon punter Tom Snee inexplicably kicked it to Britain Covey, among the most dangerous punt returners in the Pac-12. His 78-yard punt return for a touchdown featured a host of blocking and Covey avoiding an ankle tackle at around the Oregon 40 before finding daylight, the end zone, and a 28-0 halftime lead.

This game very quickly went from tilting Utah’s way, to being finished in ink. The Utes were up 14-0, while getting the blocked field goal plus the miss. If Utah is up, 14-6, at the half with Oregon getting the ball, the complexion of this thing is totally different. Instead, while 21-0 was not insurmountable, but 28-0 was.

Covey’s recall of the play during the postgame press conference was impressive. He compared the play to practice, with six guys blocking for him and finishing the play at full speed. On this particular play, Covey caught blocks from Micah Bernard, Solomon Enis, Connor O’Toole, and two from Kamo’i Latu before finally springing free for the score.

Tavion Thomas has done what he’s done in basically seven games

Thomas had 94 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries Saturday night. His second touchdown was No. 16 on the season, eclipsing the program single-season record for rushing touchdowns of 15, previously held by Zack Moss and John White.

The season that Thomas is having — 851 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 5.8 yards per carry — needs context. Those stats, which, to be sure, are gaudy and worthy of major All-Pac-12 consideration in a few weeks, have essentially been accomplished in just seven games.

At the beginning of the season, Thomas was the poster child for the dire ball security issues this team faced. Remember the time Utah fumbled eight times vs. Washington State on Sept. 25 and won anyway?

Thomas was in the doghouse for nearly a month. He fumbled once against BYU and had a second ruled down by contact. He had seven carries that night, then one each against San Diego State and Washington State. All the while, Whittingham kept praising Thomas, so it felt like at some point, it would all come back around to him, and it did.

In his last three games, Thomas has rushed for 431 yards and 11 touchdowns as the offensive line, regardless of who has manned the interior-3 positions, has been dominant.

Thomas did what he did on Saturday night after he sat at Arizona for what was believed to be precautionary reasons after he got a little banged up at Stanford, which leads us back to the original point.

Thomas has officially played in 10 of Utah’s 11 games, but for all intents and purposes, he has played in seven, maybe eight if you want to tack on the BYU game, where he wasn’t a big factor.

In seven games, Thomas has cobbled together an all-time season for a Utah running back, of which there have been a lot of really good, even great ones, and he still has three more games to add to it.

The growth of the offensive line has been a huge key

Injuries during training camp, injuries and inexperience early in the season, mixing and matching across the entire unit.

All of that led to the Stanford game, where Utah appeared to find something. Left guard Keaton Bills was out, so Nick Ford slid from center to left guard and Paul Maile stepped into Ford’s spot at center.

Those two, plus left tackle Bam Olaseni, right guard Sataoa Laumea and right tackle Braeden Daniels looked like Utah’s best five. Utah rushed for 290 yards against UCLA, 441 yards against the Cardinal, and 174 at Arizona with those five, but that trip to the desert came at a cost.

Maile was hurt, did not dress vs. Oregon, so what was Whittingham supposed to do? Bills was available at Arizona, so he came back Saturday night at left guard, and Ford slid back over to center. The result? Fifty carries for 208 yards and four touchdowns against a Ducks defense that entered the night yielding a conference-low 121.2 rushing yards per game.

Six weeks ago, as this offensive line struggled, this fanbase wanted offensive line coach Jim Harding fired. Now, he deserves all the credit, because his job has not been easy with the injuries and the shuffling. Ford is Ford, he’s a rock for that unit, but Olasaeni and Daniels have both been excellent. Maile did a commendable job in those three games at center, and credit to Bills for being ready to step right back in on Saturday in a high-stakes spot.

Cam Rising is shepherding this offense

The term “game manager” has a negative connotation attached to it. It implies a quarterback is a pedestrian, incapable of doing much beyond not turning the ball over.

By no means has Rising been a “game manager” in that sense, but it has felt like he hasn’t had to do a ton lately, which is fair given how good the offensive line and the running backs have been.

Still, Rising is more than just the guy handing it off to Thomas. He is having an All-Pac-12 season, full of moments where you are reminded that Utah is not going to Las Vegas in less than two weeks for the Pac-12 championship game without him.

Utah’s first scoring drive was full of Rising moments. On third-and-6 from his 41, Rising left the pocket, scrambled right, outran Kayvon Thibodeaux to the sideline and picked up eight yards. Third-and-6, Rising up the middle for seven. The Utes were 4 for 4 on third down on that drive, Rising was responsible for two of them.

Completions of 21 and 29 yards, respectively, to Brant Kuithe early in the second quarter on a drive that ended in a touchdown. The aforementioned 49-yard pass to Kuithe, and that was a big key to the night. Getting Kuithe involved in a significant way, because Oregon’s second level had no answer for that matchup.

Rising for the night: 10 for 18, 178 yards, no dire mistakes.

Rising for the season: 1,930 yards, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions, 63% completion percentage, no mistakes that stand out as egregious.

He is more than a “game manager.” Frankly, he should be the All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback.

Other things on my mind

• Saturday was a legitimate big-game atmosphere at Rice-Eccles. The press box was shaking during Covey’s punt-return TD.

• Utah was up 14-0 at Oregon State on Oct. 23 and lost. Utah is 7-1 vs. the Pac-12 and will be the betting favorite vs. Colorado on Friday (2 p.m., FOX).

• Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig called a terrific game, mostly because it was little more than very straightforward. My personal favorite: first scoring drive, third-and-9 from the Oregon 10 after Thomas picked up 1 yard and Rising missed on a pass to Covey. The ball went to Thomas, up the middle, 10-yard touchdown run. That was major trust from Ludwig that the offensive line would do its job.

• Devin Lloyd said during spring practice that, among the reasons he chose to return to Utah this fall, he wanted a ring. There’s a bunch of guys on this team that got to the doorstep in 2018 and 2019. That shouldn’t get lost here, because Lloyd could be getting paid right now. So could Ford and probably Kuithe, too.

• Covey had 190 all-purpose yards against Oregon. If these are the final games of his college career, everyone should enjoy this guy, because he’s electric when he gets it cranked up.

• Cole Bishop is going to be very, very good for Utah down the road. Junior Tafuna has that look about him, too, as do a bunch of other guys playing with freshman eligibility. It’s easy to forget, this Utah team is still quite young.

• Rising was sacked on Saturday for the first time since Oct. 9. That’s a span of six games. Yes, this offensive line has come a long way.

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