Utah football overcomes Colorado in regular-season finale, finishes unbeaten at Rice-Eccles Stadium

“We didn’t play to our best, but at this point, that doesn’t matter,” wide receiver Britain Covey says, as the Utes shift attention to the Pac-12 championship game

As the University of Utah’s regular-season came to a close late Saturday afternoon, Britain Covey was at least willing to be honest.

The Utes were minutes removed from a 28-13 win over Colorado, a game in which the offense did not have its typical full-throttle intensity, but one where the defense was nothing short of dominant. In one week, Utah will play in the Pac-12 championship game against a to-be-determined opponent in Las Vegas. On the other side of that could be a trip to the program’s first Rose Bowl in just its 11th season as a Pac-12 member.

The Buffaloes may have been the next team on Utah’s schedule, but whoever awaits at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas next week is standing in front of Utah’s ultimate goal.

Covey knows which game is ultimately more important.

“I think it’s obvious we didn’t play to our best, but at this point, that doesn’t matter,” Covey said after registering 136 all-purpose yards, including a 13-yard third-quarter touchdown pass from Cam Rising. “We sent the upperclassmen out right at Rice-Eccles and it’s nice to just focus on what we really want to focus on right now. It took a lot to really focus on this game throughout the week, because our whole, entire offseason, we’re talking about the Pac-12 championship.

“We are excited to be able to look forward now. We’re not even going to celebrate this victory. The moment we get home, we’re preparing.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) pulls in a pass ahead of Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Nikko Reed (25) running in for a touchdown as the University of Utah hosts the Colorado Buffaloes in Pac-12 football, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Utah (9-3, 8-1 Pac-12) secured a fourth unbeaten home slate (2008, 2009, 2019) under Kyle Whittingham, going 6-0 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where it has now won 19 of 20. The one loss was the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season-opener against USC.

This particular win was rough around the edges, at least on offense, where Rising was intercepted for the first time in five-plus weeks. Colorado turned that first-quarter turnover into a Cole Becker 33-yard field goal, but that was the Buffaloes’ last lead.

Utah held Colorado to 148 yards of total offense. Of the 10 drives the Buffaloes had on Saturday, four of them went for zero or negative yards. A fifth drive midway through the second quarter netted just 1 yard.

“My guys just really stepped and showed out today,” said All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd, who played his final game at Rice-Eccles Stadium as he will declare for the NFL Draft as a fifth-year junior. “It was something special to be able to do that, especially my last time in this stadium.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way than with these guys.”

Meanwhile, Rising moved past the interception and was solid, finishing 14-for-23 for 179 yards and three touchdown passes. The first two touchdowns came on consecutive drives in the second quarter, one to Brant Kuithe up the seam for 19 yards, the other to Dalton Kincaid, again up the seam, that one for 28, as Utah took a 14-6 halftime lead.

In continuing with its season-long issues on special teams, the Utes yielded a 100-yard second-half kickoff return for a touchdown to Nikko Reed, who fielded the ball three yards inside the goal line. That marked the third time Utah has given up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Rising and the offense restored order, engineering a 68-yard drive across seven plays and 2:29, capped by a 12-yard Tavion Thomas touchdown run, his 18th of the season, for a 21-13 lead.

Utah’s offensive line was again beset by changes at left guard, where Keaton Bills exited in favor of Johnny Maea, then Michael Mokofisi, but none of that mattered. Thomas ran 142 yards, TJ Pledger added 103, and the Utes finished with 265 rushing on 45 carries. It marked another game where the running backs carried the load and Rising, who did plenty, wasn’t asked to do a ton.

Rising capped the scoring later in the third quarter when, on third-and-5 at the Colorado 13, he took off. With the Buffaloes closing on him, he flipped a shovel pass to Covey, who caught a goal-line block from Solomon Enis on the outside before walking into the end zone.

“I was planning on running it, but the defender came to me and I saw Covey running scot-free,” Rising said as Covey joked next to him that Rising almost faked him out. “Covey was open and it was nice.”