Analysis: Utah football has turned something tragic into ‘something beautiful’ as regular season ends with win over Colorado

Utah will face either Oregon or Washington State in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas

The University of Utah football program has been forced to face down unspeakable horror not once, but twice inside the last year.

The deaths of two players, who they were, what they meant to their teammates will continue to permeate inside the Eccles Football Center. But, in the face of that horror, this team has rallied around each other.

Nine regular-season wins, an outright Pac-12 South title, a trip to Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game, the program’s first Rose Bowl waiting on the other side with a win at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

This season hasn’t been easy on anyone, but Utah is now in position to end it just how it envisioned it. How they envisioned it after Ty Jordan’s death, before Aaron Lowe’s death, before everything changed this fall. In the face of that horror, these Utes are celebrating Jordan and Lowe by arriving on the doorstep of what the veteran players among the group, the ones that tasted disappointment in 2018, then again in 2019, always believed was their destiny.

“I think that we’ve taken probably the hardest thing that can happen, and we’ve turned it into something beautiful,” Britain Covey said following Utah’s 28-13 win over Colorado on Friday. “We’ve taken a tragedy and we’ve turned it into something beautiful.

More offensive line shuffling, and it still doesn’t matter

Last week against Oregon, Keaton Bills returned to his usual left guard spot after Paul Maile was injured against Arizona, meaning Nick Ford kicked back over from left guard to center. Utah rushed 50 times for 208 yards and four touchdowns against the Ducks.

This week, Bills exited early against Colorado, though it was unclear postgame if he reaggravated something or suffered a new injury. Johnny Maea spent a little bit of time at left guard, Michael Mokofisi got a bunch of time, and it simply didn’t matter who was plugged in there. The Utes rushed for 265 yards and a Tavion Thomas touchdown on 45 attempts despite the shuffling.

Utah’s offensive line, with Ford anchoring at center (aside from his two-game cameo at left guard), has been dominant. The Utes entered the game 18th nationally in rushing yards per game (213.9), and its performance on Friday should solidify them as a top-20 operation to close the regular season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Players stand in honor of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe as a tribute is played on the screen at the end of the third quarter during their game against Colorado on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.

My big takeaway here: Cam Rising is more than capable of shouldering the load for this offense, in part because he has a cannon for an arm and three capable, pass-catching tight ends as security blankets. However, if the offensive line is performing at a high level and you have two, sometimes three running backs capable of shouldering the load, you’re better off not asking Rising to do everything, but rather asking him to do something when he’s needed.

Rising has been excellent, the offensive line has been excellent, Thomas has been excellent, TJ Pledger has come on more over the last month. Everyone is doing what they’re asked, and it’s all working, even if Utah’s offense on Friday was a little less cranked up than it normally is. It operated at a more-than-sufficient level against the Buffaloes in finishing with 444 total yards.

Special teams. Yikes.

Colorado’s Nikko Reed fielded the second-half kickoff three yards inside his own end zone, brought it out, broke one tackle and was gone for what was officially a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Utah has now given up 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns three times this season. Three times. That is absurd for any team to give up, but that feels especially crazy when it’s a Power Five division winner with one loss in the last two months. It’s a problem, and every time a Jordan Noyes kickoff leaves his foot, the possibility it goes back the other way for six is real. Teams playing Utah have no reason not to take a kickoff out from the shallow part of their own end zone. That’s just what it is, and to think this can get fixed on Nov. 26 after three instances is wishful thinking.

The kickoff return stood out, but there is another special teams factor that feels like it might be an even bigger problem.

Late in the first quarter, Jadon Redding had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked. That is the last field goal Utah attempted on Friday, but that statement needs context.

Second quarter, fourth-and-2 from the Colorado 31-yard line: Tavion Thomas up the middle for 3 yards to move the chains.

Later in the second quarter, fourth-and-2 on the Colorado 24: Out of the option, Rising does not pitch it, had room in front of him, but tripped up 1 yard short of the first down. No problem with going there. The offense was churning, you picked up the last fourth down, you have a smart quarterback capable of using his legs. Things happen.

This is the one that stands out. Up 15 midway through the fourth quarter, fourth-and-1 from the Colorado 26. Rising incomplete to Dalton Kincaid, turnover on downs. Not taking into account analytics, which Whittingham is a fan of, that felt like a spot where you kick it. Utah did not kick it, and instead turned the ball over.

The question now is, what is the trust level of the field goal unit? If there is a high-leverage spot in the Pac-12 championship game, does Whittingham trust Redding and his field goal unit to do the job?

That whole thing feels very shaky right now, especially after that third and final instance. For the season, Redding, who lost his job midseason to Noyce before winning it back, is 8-for-12 on field-goal attempts. Three of the misses are inside 40 yards. That’s an interesting subplot to keep in mind as the Pac-12 title game approaches.

Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell and the future of this defense

Give this to the defense: When it has faced a mediocre-or-worse offense this season, it has acted accordingly and completely snuffed out any opportunity to gain even a shred of momentum.

Colorado had 148 yards of total offense. Previously, Arizona scored 29 points on Utah, but its offense mostly stalled after the first quarter. Stanford managed just 167 yards of total offense, even high-powered Oregon was held under 300 yards last week.

Friday’s effort was one more example of what Utah is losing (or maybe losing), but also of what the future of this defense looks like.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) is taken down by Utah Utes linebacker Nephi Sewell (1) as the University of Utah hosts the Colorado Buffaloes in Pac-12 football, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Devin Lloyd (leaving) had nine tackles, including one for a loss, while Nephi Sewell (maybe leaving) had 10 tackles, including five solo. Both have been consistent, both have been excellent over long stretches of this season.

Freshman safety Cole Bishop has been on a tear for the last month at his safety spot. His seven tackles, including six solo and one for a loss, give him 27 in the last four games dating back to Stanford on Nov. 5. This kid is among the key cogs of the future of this defense, and one of a bunch of players with freshman eligibility playing key roles.

Clark Phillips had a key pass breakup in the end zone in the second quarter, Zemaiah Vaughn followed with one of his on third down. Van Fillinger registered his fifth sack of the season. Junior Tafuna continued to play well at his defensive tackle spot. Johan Elliss and Hayden Fury both had moments at linebacker.

All of the guys in the above paragraph are freshmen. Lloyd and Sewell are leaving their defense in a good place.

Cam Rising gets picked off, then settles in

Rising’s decision-making is solid. He’ll take a chance every now and again, try to fit a ball in a tight window perhaps, but the chances he is taking are almost never egregious.

It had been so long since Rising was intercepted that when he was picked off early in the first quarter, it raised some eyebrows. Facing second-and-9 on his own 36 on the fourth play from scrimmage, Rising had time in the pocket, but appeared to sail a ball to the right sideline intended for Brant Kuithe, but it was picked off by Mark Perry. The ensuing drive ended in a Cole Becker field goal to open the scoring.

Rising has consistently indicated that each play is different and that he isn’t taking the previous play into the next play. So, after the interception, he was solid. The touchdown passes to Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid were both up the seam off nice throws. He hit Covey up the field for 33 yards to set up a second-half touchdown, he was low risk for most of the afternoon following the interception, and, as stated above, the run game was going and Rising didn’t have to do a ton.

Rising for the season: 2,109 yards, 62.8% completions, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions for a nine-win division champion. Rising should be the All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback.

Other things on my mind

• The Pac-12 North is down to the following: Washington State wins it with an Oregon loss to Oregon State on Saturday. All Oregon has to do is beat Oregon State. Utah has wins over both the Cougars and Ducks, although the win over the Cougars was way back in September, when Nick Rolovich was still the head coach and Jarrett Guarantano was still the starting quarterback. Utah beat Wazzu despite fumbling seven times.

• Tavion Thomas is 22 yards shy of 1,000 rushing for the season, which he will have accomplished in essentially eight games, maybe nine if you want to count seven carries for 26 yards at BYU on Sept. 11. He has been a revelation, partially because he was a late get from the junior college ranks, not even the transfer portal.

• Nine non-seniors took part in senior day festivities. Among those nine, Pledger felt like at least a bit of a surprise. Based on this tweet, it doesn’t feel like he’s coming back in 2022, but that is unconfirmed.

• Morgan Scalley hasn’t gotten enough credit for the job he’s done with this defense.

• Utah hasn’t lost a home game in a non-COVID season since Sept. 2018. Rice-Eccles is one of the underrated home-field advantages nationally.