It was an absolute certainty that when University of Utah players met the media late Saturday afternoon following a 42-16 win over Oregon State, the first question would go to Clark Phillips III.
After all, earlier in the day, the third-year sophomore cornerback became the sixth Ute to register three interceptions in a game, not to mention the first to do it at home in 52 years.
“I’ll be honest, a lot of preparation that goes on every single week, but shoot, God said this was the week we were going to get three,” Phillips said.
As is usually the case, Phillips gave off a strong sense of humility, while making sure to note the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing for a such performance. The fact of the matter is, this was a career afternoon within a career that is meeting, if not exceeding every expectation since his arrival in Salt Lake City in January 2020.
“He’s got exceptional quickness and speed, first of all,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham after his team moved to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in a better-than-expected Pac-12 in front of 51,729 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the building’s 73rd straight announced sellout. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s built well and he’s physical when he needs to be. Speed and quickness is his big thing, along with film study. There’s nobody that studies more film than Clark, and that leads to big plays.
“The more film you study, the more plays you’re going to make.”
Phillips already had one first-quarter interception of Chance Nolan in which he jumped a route. At that point, he had noticed what he later called “formational tendencies,” which defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley acted upon.
On first-and-10 from his own 30-yard line, Nolan dropped back, looking for John Dumore along the left sideline. Phillips jumped that one, too, picking it off and taking it 38 yards the other way for the third pick-six of his career and a 14-7 lead following a Jordan Noyes extra point.
Utah never trailed again, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything was good as it enters a world without its leading pass catcher, tight end Brant Kuithe, who is out for the season after suffering a torn right ACL.
The defense did not play particularly well in the first half before giving up 417 yards of total offense for the day, including an uncharacteristic 171 on the ground. This, after three strong showings in that department in as many weeks. Utah’s own rushing attack, once viewed as among the offense’s biggest strengths, has a load of questions. Utah officially rushed 31 times for 152 yards and two touchdowns. The problem is, Tavion Thomas, Jaylon Glover, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard combined for just 55 yards on 22 carries.
“Very concerned,” Whittingham said. “We had too many linebacker run-throughs. That was the real key. When you’re coming on those combination blocks with your front, you have to have your eyes up, seeing the linebackers coming through triggering. We weren’t doing a good job seeing that, and consequently, they were getting into the backfield, especially early in the game.”
Despite Utah’s raw defensive numbers, one should argue that while that unit bent, significantly so at times, it never broke.
One Beavers drive early in the second quarter saw first-and-goal from the 10, but ended in an Atticus Sappington 26-yard field goal. Their final drive of the half, aided by shoddy tackling on a 63-yard catch-and-run from Tre’Shaun Harrison, stalled at the 5. Another 26-yard boot from Sappington with 37 seconds left sent Oregon State to halftime trailing, 21-13.
Utah played just poorly enough for most of three quarters where Oregon State (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) was perpetually hanging around, perpetually a play or two away from overtaking momentum, if not the lead.
As the third quarter clock began to wind down, it became clear the Utes were not going to register a clunker against Oregon State, 11 months after doing just that in Corvallis.
Just in case, though, R.J. Hubert made that point clearer.
The fifth-year senior safety intercepted a Ben Gulbranson pass five yards deep in the end zone and returned it to the Beavers’ 30-yard line. Jaylen Dixon’s 22-yard touchdown run on the second play of the ensuing drive was the beginning of the end, extending Utah to a 35-16 lead with 1:57 left in the third quarter
In Utah’s first game without Kuithe, quarterback Cam Rising hit eight different receivers, finishing 19 for 25 for 199 yards and three touchdown passes. Dixon, a slot receiver, scored twice, the first one a 19-yard pass loft to the back of the end zone from Rising, which was the byproduct of Phillips’ first interception.
Before Dixon’s second touchdown put the Utes put Utah up, 28-16, Rising engineered an eight-play, 75-yard drive across 3:28, capped by him hitting Devaughn Vele over the middle at the 5. Vele then dragged two defenders to the goal line, extending the ball with his right arm for the score.
After an optimistic six-catch, 63-yard showing at Arizona State, Vele outdid that, hauling in seven Rising passes for 94 yards and the touchdown.
“As big of a loss as it is with Kuithe going down, we knew as a receiver group that we needed to be the playmakers on the outside,” Vele said. “We always attack the middle, we always have a good run game, but we understand we have to be a vital role in the offense, igniting the offense and sparking big plays.”
Utah is scheduled to visit unbeaten UCLA next Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, FOX or FS1). The Bruins (5-0, 2-0) are coming off a 40-32 victory Friday night over No. 15 Washington.