Analysis: Utah football’s trip to Colorado was a formality with Pac-12 championship game now the focus

Utes are through to the Pac-12 championship game for the fourth time in five seasons

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, left, looks to pass the ball as Colorado linebacker Marvin Ham II pursues in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Boulder, Colo. • Saturday wasn’t exactly poetic. No, that option for the University of Utah faded into the Pacific Northwest evening a week ago at Autzen Stadium.

What transpired Saturday was part survival in handling its own business, and yeah, maybe a wing and a prayer as the Utes waited to see if all the outside help they needed for a trip back to the Pac-12 championship game would come through.

Past midnight on Sunday morning, at the end of an interminable Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State in Pullman, Utah had persevered. Persevered through its own injuries, through its own issues, through a couple of close losses that could have changed things, through a weekend that was largely out of its control. The Utes took the hard road this time, but no matter, no apologies. They’re now afforded the right to play for everything.

No matter how improbable it may seem when you woke up on Friday, these Utes are going back to Las Vegas, back to the site of one of the program’s proudest moments. They’re going to try and recreate the whole thing with USC and its methodical journey to the College Football Playoff standing in the way.

Now that would be poetry.

The action in Corvallis > Boulder

To be clear, very little that happened at Folsom Field on Saturday needs to be thoroughly dissected. Utah was a 29.5-point favorite playing against a Colorado quarterback in Maddox Kopp making his first start after beginning the season at No. 5 on the depth chart.

The second half was a glorified scrimmage with Cam Rising on the sideline with a headset. No starter on either side of the ball saw the fourth quarter of a 63-21 win that featured a 42-0 halftime lead.

The most action involving Utah on Saturday was taking place at Reser Stadium in Corvallis.

At roughly 4:45 p.m., Utah was up, 56-7 , but Oregon was up on Oregon State, 34-17 early in the fourth quarter in Corvallis. The Utes needed a Beavers win to keep their Pac-12 championship game hopes alive. Then, something happened.

Isaiah Newell with a 15-yard touchdown run for Oregon State, which then forced a three-and-out. Ducks punter Alex Bales muffed the long snap, got dropped at the 2, and the Beavers punched that in, now trailing, 34-31, with 12:13 left.

On the ensuing Ducks drive, Oregon head coach Dan Lanning, who was criticized for fourth-down decisions in a loss to Washington two weeks ago, went for it fourth-and-1 at his own 29-yard line, only to have quarterback Bo Nix lose a yard on a keeper.

Newell again from six yards out to cap the scoring, Oregon State’s defense gets a fourth-and-goal stop at the 3, ballgame.

With about 5:00 left in Boulder, they showed the Oregon-Oregon State final score on the video board, and the Utah fan contingent, well aware of the significance, went nuts.

Kyle Whittingham should send Lanning something nice for Christmas.

Among the three results Utah needed to go its way, Ducks-Beavers was widely viewed during the week as the biggest question mark.

Ja’Quinden Jackson’s breakout moment

Watching Ja’Quinden Jackson operate on Saturday, it is important to remember that the third-year freshman began this season as a quarterback, but agreed to move to running back in late September for depth purposes. He didn’t have an offseason or even a training camp working as a running back. No, this was done on the fly with the understanding that he would remain at running back for the remainder of this season, with his future position to be discussed in the offseason.

Tavion Thomas is done at Utah as of Friday afternoon, so assuming continued health, Jackson is going to play a bigger role the rest of the way. We have to take into account that Utah was playing overmatched Colorado, but that’s not Jackson’s problem. He did what he should have done against that opponent, run through them. His 10 carries for 117 yards and three touchdowns were a glimpse into his versatility.

He scored on a 10-yard first-quarter run up the middle in which he took first contact, then dragged a defender into the end zone. Jackson later scored on second-and-goal from the 2 in which he took a direct snap and plowed forward. The capper was a 66-yard run in which he again took initial contact, found some daylight, and took it to another gear over the final 40 yards.

The direct snap out of the Wildcat was interesting because remember, he was a quarterback, so he is comfortable in those situations. He’s not a running back with no QB experience trying to handle a snap out of the shotgun. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knows he can use Jackson in a variety of ways and a variety of situations, which is a huge benefit.

Whittingham balked postgame at discussing Jackson’s long-term future at running back, but if you start looking around at both QB and RB, it is beginning to feel like RB is Jackson’s best bet to get on and stay on the field moving forward. With no Thomas in 2023, and if Micah Bernard opts to leave Utah, it’s not hard to envision Jackson and Jaylon Glover getting the majority of the reps.

Could Jackson opt to return to QB with Whittingham’s blessing? In theory, yes, but there is an impending QB battle coming in the spring, and that is already going to presumably include Nate Johnson and Bryson Barnes, plus the potential of hitting the NCAA Transfer Portal for more help.

If you want to get on the field, opting for a minimum three-way QB competition with nothing promised to you is really rolling the dice.

Whittingham addresses Tavion Thomas’ departure

Thomas made news on Friday afternoon when, citing a toe injury suffered at Oregon, he was ending his college career in favor of rehabbing, and preparing for the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFL Draft.

“He was not able to practice last week and I think Tavion’s made the correct decision and we support him 100%,” Whittingham said in his public comments on Thomas leaving. “We are hoping that he can get completely healthy for this East-West game. He should be able to, and then hopefully have an opportunity in the National Football League to see what he can do.”

There was apparently no discussion on Thomas sticking around to try and get healthy enough for the Pac-12 championship and/or a bowl game. Whittingham said the injury could be a while and it was Tavion’s decision, in conjunction with his support system in Dayton.

We don’t know every last detail of what has gone in regards to Thomas inside the Eccles Football Center, but his status, good or bad, has been a topic of conversation for the last two months. The finality of Thomas’ exit feels like a positive in that it is a weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders, if not a distraction.

I’ve said and written for weeks that the best version of Utah’s offense includes Thomas going well, but the fact of the matter is, the Utes are 9-3, mostly without Thomas, or at least Thomas’ best.

His inclusion is not the big deal some of us may have felt it was for the last two months.

Other things on my mind

• Had Oregon won, we would have been spending Saturday night trying to guess which Utes would opt out of a bowl game. Instead, Washington’s Apple Cup win sent Utah back to the Pac-12 championship game.

• Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings reveal is worth your attention. How far does Oregon fall, how far do Washington and Utah rise? If USC winds up in the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl is likely to select the next-highest-ranked Pac-12 team.

• Dalton Kincaid’s injury status will be a primary storyline as Pac-12 championship game week opens Monday. Kincaid appeared to hurt his lower back on a second-quarter touchdown catch and did not return. Whittingham did not confirm what the injury was, only saying that it was not the shoulder he injured vs. Washington State, and that initial tests did not reveal anything serious. Kincaid destroyed USC the first time around, catching 16 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown

• Another potential injury note: Clark Phillips III dressed out, warmed up, and then was on the sideline in sweats. That is a real, tangible loss if the All-American candidate at cornerback cannot play Friday night.

• Cam Rising continues to wear the large brace on his left knee, but it was not a deterrent in going 17-for-19 for 234 yards and a touchdown.

• True freshman quarterback Nate Johnson did not play at Colorado, leaving him at three games with Utah having two more to play. NCAA rules state you can play in up to four games and preserve the year of eligibility.

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