Las Vegas • Kyle Whittingham sat on a makeshift dais in the bowels of Allegiant Stadium Friday night, his voice half-gone, his demeanor remaining even-keeled.
After the 17th-year University of Utah head coach pumped up the leadership his team has shown in the face of tragedy, after he pumped up the defense’s staunch effort in a 38-10 win over Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, after he rightfully pumped up the job Cam Rising has done for the last two-and-a-half months, he uttered what a lot of this fanbase has surely been thinking for some time now.
“If you would have told me that, after three games, we would be here right now, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” Whittingham said.
Utah went 1-2 against its non-conference schedule, while offering little reason to believe it could be a contender at the top of a Power Five conference.
The Utes are 9-1 since, a mark that includes a Pac-12 South title, not to mention a second absolute demolition of the Ducks in 13 days. The Nov. 20 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium was one thing, but Friday night was another. Friday night sent Utah into uncharted waters it will be exploring until it lands in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
These Utes are going to the Rose Bowl.
Fourth-and-1 on the opening drive
To set this up, we need to rewind to the opening drive of Utah’s 2019 Pac-12 championship game loss to Oregon.
On that drive, Tyler Huntley moved the Utes to the Ducks 33-yard line. On third-and-1, Zack Moss got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Utah decided to go on fourth-and-1, only to have Moss get stuffed again, turning the ball over on downs. Oregon had established a tone with those two stops, then dominated a 37-15 win.
Speed back ahead to Friday night. Opening drive, third-and-4 at the Utah 45, Rising up the middle for three yards. The Utes have been successful for most of the last six weeks in short-yardage situations on third and fourth downs, so there was no doubt they were going there on fourth-and-1. Rising up the middle for two yards, complete with an iffy spot, but no matter. First down after the offensive line won consecutive plays to move the chains.
Like Oregon two years ago, Utah set a tone on the opening drive on a key early fourth down call.
“Absolutely,” Whittingham said when asked if he thought that fourth-down conversion was critical to establishing a tone for the night. “We played it aggressively, and opting to take the ball first in the last seven or eight games, that’s just more of that kind of mentality and that attitude. Our offense has had so much confidence as the season has gone on, I personally thought they were going to score on every possession.”
Rising to Solomon Enis for 13 yards, Rising to Britain Covey for 22 more. After a pass interference call set up first-and-goal, Tavion Thomas up the middle for two yards and his 19th rushing touchdown.
The Utes assumed control on that first drive and they never gave it up.
Cam Rising hung in there
Rising entered the night 11th nationally in QBR, which is one indication that he has done an excellent job of commanding Utah’s offense, even though it has been run-heavy for much of the last two months.
Rising has played well, certainly well enough that if things go south on him, it is going to get magnified.
On the first play of the second quarter, with Utah up 14-0 and looking for more inside the Oregon 30, Ducks linebacker Noah Sewell, who was fantastic on Friday night, read Rising’s eyes, jumped a route and picked him off at the 24. Maybe it was a great play by Sewell, maybe Rising telegraphed the whole thing, but in the moment it was a tough one to swallow with Utah looking for the knockout.
On the next Utes drive, they again got to the Oregon 30, still leading 14-0 after Camden Lewis missed a 30-yard field goal, his third miss against Utah in two games. On first down, defensive tackle Kristian Williams got home, crushed Rising in his midsection, causing Rising’s pass attempt to float high in the air. Thorpe Award finalist Verone McKinley III made a great diving interception, his sixth of the season.
This was not Rising’s cleanest night, but he hung in there and played well. Utah’s defense forced a three-and-out after the McKinley III interception, followed by Rising engineering the Utes’ best drive of the night, 12 plays, 74 yards across 3:37, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid for a 20-0 lead.
On that drive, after the two picks: Rising to Kincaid for 12, Rising to Kincaid for 29 along the right side, which set up the touchdown pass.
Rising for the night: 15-for-24, 170 yards, TD, 2 INT as it felt like he was asked to do a little bit more than in recent weeks. Rising answered the bell in the biggest game of the season. That should come as a surprise to no one.
The defense, again
The overwhelming outside perspective in the 13 days between these two Utah-Oregon games was that the Ducks are not 31 points worse than the Utes, not to mention the Ducks are better than the seven points they scored on Nov. 20. After all, Oregon averages 418 yards and 31.4 points per game.
But Utah’s defense was nothing short of dominant again. Dominant, as in yielding 10 points, 221 yards of total offense, and just 74 rushing yards to a team that wants to run the ball with Travis Dye and Byron Cardwell.
Utah stopped the run, forcing Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown to beat them, which wasn’t going to happen. Brown was made uncomfortable almost immediately. He made bad throws, he made bad decisions, and no one on the Oregon sideline had an answer.
To sum up the point here, Oregon picked off Rising twice and got nothing out of it. On the two ensuing drives following the Rising interceptions, the Ducks netted a total of 46 yards and no points. Utah’s offense has been electric for two months, but the defense hasn’t exactly been a slouch either.
In the six weeks since Utah’s defense couldn’t do anything to stop Oregon State, it has given up seven points twice, 10 on Friday night, and 13 last week against Colorado. Arizona scoring 29 points on Nov. 13 came on 329 total yards, but seven of the points were on a blocked punt return and the Wildcats offense largely stalled after a fast first quarter.
The Devin Lloyd pick-six
Utah was up, 7-0, but the teams then traded punts and, yes, the Utes had set a tone, but there was a feeling that momentum was still somewhat up for grabs.
On third-and-9 from his own 30, Brown dropped back, Lloyd followed Brown’s eyes, then effortlessly jumped a route, picking Brown off and taking it 34 yards the other way for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Just as Noah Sewell was all over the place for Oregon, so too was Lloyd for Utah. Seven tackles, five of them solo, the pick-six and just constantly lurking from sideline to sideline made him an easy choice as MVP of the Pac-12 championship game.
We wrote and talked about this on radio hits all week: These are the moments, the opportunities Lloyd came back to Utah for. He wanted to win a Pac-12 title, he wanted to go to a Rose Bowl. He helped pace Utah to both feats.
Lloyd deserves to be named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year by the conference. Furthermore, he is in the discussion as the greatest defensive player in Utah history.
It was clear in the weeks leading up to Friday night that Utah fans were going to make up a healthy portion of the crowd at Allegiant Stadium.
The athletic department sold 8,100 tickets on its own, selling out allotments from the Pac-12 twice along the way. Of course, fans bought tickets through the Pac-12, Ticketmaster, and secondary sites, and it appeared they had been doing so for the last month, before Utah even clinched the Pac-12 South.
The announced attendance Friday night was 56,511. From up in the press box, based on that attendance figure, it seemed like they were roughly 30-35,000 Utah fans, which is a monstrous showing for a fanbase that had the option to drive six hours instead of getting on an airplane.
The 61,000-seat layout was a sea of red from the time the gates opened two hours before kickoff, and it legitimately felt like a home game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which is not an easy thing to pull off at a neutral site out of state.
Whittingham noted the presence of the fans, as did Rising, Lloyd and Mika Tafua.
“It was incredible, 5-to-1 was what it looked like during warmups,” Whittingham said. “When the game actually started, it was probably still close to that, but it was definitely a crown in our favor. I appreciate our crowd, they’ve been awesome all year long. The crowd at Rice-Eccles 13 days for that Oregon game was the best environment I’ve ever been in, and this was just a great show of support from our fans.
“I promise you one thing, they’re going to the Rose Bowl. I guarantee you that.”
Other things on my mind
• Britain Covey: 123 all-purpose yards, including 39 on the opening kickoff to put Utah in business. He was very, very good on Friday in the biggest spot of his career.
• The Malone Mataele interception of Brown late in the first half featured one of the more inexplicable throws you’ll ever see from Brown. Good heads-up work by Mataele to put himself in position to make the play.
• If Michigan beats Iowa in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night, it is going to the College Football Playoff, which would likely leave Ohio State going to the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes would be a multi-score betting favorite against the Utes.
• Is this Utah’s greatest team ever? At a minimum, this is the program’s best team of the Pac-12 era, which dates back to 2011.
• The postgame scene on the field included a lot of smiles and a lot of tears from Utah players and coaches. That included Whittingham, who fought back tears on live TV when Holly Rowe asked him about Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe.
• Conducting the Moment of Loudness was a nice touch by the Pac-12. Having Donna Lowe-Stern serve as an honorary captain was an even better touch.
• There are a lot of hypotheticals being thrown around about an expanded CFP and how Utah would fit in. I get it, but boy, is that a waste of time right now.
• Ten penalties for 89 yards are both roughly double what Utah averages per game. Too much, and too much of it was happening along the offensive line.