Utah wraps Pac-12 tenure with methodical victory over Colorado

QB Luke Bottari rushed for two touchdowns in his first start.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) runs the ball for a touchdown as Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Travis Hunter (12) defends at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t the stuff of highlight reels.

Saturday’s win was simple and straightforward — which is a pretty good microcosm of the Utah football team these days.

A team already decimated by injuries this season went into the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium vs. Colorado with only two quarterbacks at its disposal, neither of whom had played a snap this season, and one of whom they wanted to remain that way.

So the Utes ran the ball. Again and again and again and again. The end result was a 23-17 victory over a Buffaloes team that began the season with plenty of flash, quickly fell apart, and was short-handed behind center itself on this occasion.

Running back Jaylon Glover succinctly summed up the Utes’ relief at snapping a two-game losing streak and finishing the regular season with a win.

“Yeah, 8-4 is a hell of a lot better than 7-5,” he said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Mikey Matthews (0) is tackled by Colorado Buffaloes safety Shilo Sanders (21) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

With Bryson Barnes injured and Nate Johnson hitting the transfer portal, senior Luke Bottari was just asked not to make any mistakes, and he complied, completing 6 of 10 passes for 61 yards.

The Utes’ ground game, meanwhile, racked up 268 yards on 53 rushes.

Bottari had two short rushing touchdowns for Utah, which was playing its final game as a member of the Pac-12 Conference ahead of next year’s move to the Big 12.

“Yeah, I think it took a couple of seconds to hit me, for sure,” Bottari said when asked about the emotion of scoring for the first time. “But just super-juiced to celebrate with my guys.”

Colorado, which was missing star QB Shadeur Sanders, got a game effort from Ryan Staub, who went 17 of 24 for 195 yards.

Eighteen of those came on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to two-way star Travis Hunter, who made his way through some minimal resistance before reaching the end zone.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Suddenly, a Buffaloes team that hadn’t seemed to pose much of a threat had the game in doubt with 7:31 to play.

“We did give up some stuff in the throw game, which was disappointing,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We were too porous, I guess you could say, in our pass defense. That’s something that hadn’t really shown up all year.”

Still, Utah never gave Colorado another chance.

Following the ensuing kickoff, Bottari tried throwing it on first down — and after having it almost picked off, the coaching staff decided to put its trust in the offensive line and the running backs.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders watches the game against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Utah ran the ball nine consecutive times thereafter, picking up three first downs that all but ended the game, pending a few kneel-downs.

Glover finished with a career-best 108 rushing yards on 17 carries.

The Utes now await their bowl game, which will be announced on Sunday, Dec. 3.

“For all the adversity — for lack of a better word — that we battled this year, to come out 8-4, I’m very proud of our players,” said Whittingham. “They hung in there, never quit, never stopped believing.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) avoids a tackle from Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Utes expand lead to 20-10 after three quarters

Utah opened up its offense ever so slightly in the third quarter.

And it paid off.

The Utes began a drive with Luke Bottari throwing to Landen King down the right sideline, and the tight end one-handed it for an 18-yard gain.

A handful of plays later, they went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Colorado 38-yard line, and Bottari this time found receiver Luca Caldarella, who broke a couple tackles en route to a 16-yard gain.

An end-around to Money Parks yielded 18 more yards and set the Utes up with a first-and-goal at the four, and two plays later, a “tush push” had Bottari in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.

Utah, armed with a 20-10 lead, was on the move again at the end of the third quarter, just 28 yards from the end zone.

Bottari is 6 of 9 for 61 yards, while the Utes have 204 rushing yards.

Utes lead 13-10 at halftime

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) runs the ball against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

You could call Utah’s offense three yards and a cloud of dust, but they actually averaged closer to six yards per rush in the opening half.

The Utes ran the ball 24 times in 27 offensive plays en route to a 13-10 halftime lead over Colorado on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

While Utah was mostly successful rushing the ball vs. the Buffaloes’ porous defense, a couple of second-quarter drives did bog down in the red zone, leading to field goals from Colorado transfer Cole Becker.

The Rice-Eccles Stadium faithful was particularly unimpressed with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig getting cute near the end of the quarter, as a third-and-goal pass play resulted in a two-yard loss by receiver Mikey Matthews.

Fill-in QB Luke Bottari was 3 for 3 for 22 yards. The Utes rushed 24 times for 135 yards.

Meanwhile, Utah’s defense did not look particularly great against Colorado’s own fill-in QB, Ryan Staub, generally playing loose and surrendering plenty of yardage.

The Buffaloes’ biggest play of the half came on a double-pass, where receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. hit wide-open running back Dylan Edwards for a 30-yard scoring strike.

Colorado very nearly took the lead just before halftime, when two-way star Travis Hunter toasted cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn down the sideline, and Staub lofted a pass into the end zone.

Hunter dove for it and initially was ruled to have caught the go-ahead score, but a review of the play determined Hunter did not maintain control, and the Buffaloes settled for a 47-yard field goal.

Utes capitalize on turnover, take 7-0 lead

Utah’s defense bent but didn’t break.

And Utah’s offense ran but didn’t pass.

First, the Utes short-circuited a promising Colorado drive with a strip-sack by Connor O’Toole and a fumble recovery by Van Fillinger.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) raises the ball after a turnover against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Then, new quarterback Luke Bottari moved the Utes methodically down the field, going 58 yards in eight plays over 5:10.

He capped the drive with a two-yard rushing touchdown on a keeper, as Utah exploited the Buffaloes’ awful run defense — rushing on all eight plays of the drive.

After forcing a Colorado punt, the Utes had just enough time to run a few more plays in the opening period.

Utah wound up with 10 offensive snaps — all of which were runs.

Both starting QBs out for Utes, Buffaloes

The Pac-12 finale for Utah and Colorado is shaping up to be an uninspiring affair.

Both teams will be without their starting quarterbacks at Rice-Eccles Stadium, with Bryson Barnes sitting out for the Utes due to an undisclosed injury, and Shadeur Sanders sitting out for the Buffaloes.

With reports that backup quarterback Nate Johnson — who was benched for ineffectual play earlier this season — has entered the transfer portal, Utah is set to start senior Luke Bottari.

The only other QB dressed for Utah is Brandon Rose, who doesn’t figure to play, as the Utes coaching staff looks to preserve a medical redshirt for him after he was injured in fall camp.

In other bad news for Utah, top receiver Devaughn Vele was not dressed for the game.