A down-the-depth-chart QB and a sledgehammer ground game leave the Utah football team with some good vibes

Luke Bottari got a chance to start and did what he needed to, while the Utes overcame a surprisingly sloppy pass defense to earn a regular season-concluding victory over Colorado.

(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.

Utah’s 23-17 victory over Colorado on Saturday won’t be remembered in awe years from now by fans who were in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

It wasn’t that kind of game.

There weren’t huge stakes or huge stats in play.

But it mattered.

The Utes, coming off back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona, went in with something to prove, and they came away with a win. And they’ll take it.

It was an unconventional win, to be sure — one that featured 53 rushes compared to just 10 passes by the Utes. It was a victory secured, in the end, by converting on a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, a handoff, and one last handoff.

Bottari keeps it straightforward

Utah quarterback Luke Bottari (15) celebrates a touchdown with quarterback Cameron Rising against Colorado during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rob Gray)

Kyle Whittingham said that Bryson Barnes got “pretty banged up” in last week’s loss to Arizona.

The coach added that Nate Johnson’s decision to enter the transfer portal came on Monday.

Meanwhile, Whittingham said Brandon Rose has been so entrenched in running the scout team that it “wasn’t fair” to suddenly put him in the position of being responsible for running the Utes. Which may be a euphemism for, “We didn’t want to torch his medical redshirt.”

So, Luke Bottari it was at quarterback.

Clearly, the Utes weren’t expecting tons out of the guy who briefly departed for Cal during the offseason, only to transfer back to Utah midway through fall camp.

After all, Utah’s first 10 plays from scrimmage were all runs, and Bottari only attempted 10 passes all game.

Still, he did what the Utes needed him to.

“First opportunity to quarterback at the Power-5 level, and he’s 1-0,” Whittingham quipped postgame. “… He did a great job of managing the offense, got us into all the right checks. He was flawless and did a phenomenal job with that.”

Bottari acknowledged that these past few months have been quite the journey.

“I love this program with all my heart, and obviously that’s why I came back,” he said. “… I was able to hit the portal in August during fall camp, and was able to have the opportunity to come back to Utah, which I’m extremely blessed for. … I was just thankful that they welcomed me back with open arms.”

Running ’em into the ground

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Jaylon Glover (1) tries to avoid the tackle from Colorado Buffaloes defensive lineman Chazz Wallace (52) and Colorado Buffaloes safety Jaden Milliner-Jones (31) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

You will perhaps not be surprised to know that in a season where the Utes never got consistently solid passing numbers, they became heavily dependent upon the run.

Saturday’s 268 rushing yards were Utah’s third-highest total of the season, and the sixth time in a dozen games that they surpassed the 200-yard benchmark.

As Whittingham put it, “Jaylon Glover had his breakout game as a Ute, by far his best game,” rushing 17 times for 107 yards. And while he may lack breakaway speed, he showed plenty of wiggle against the Buffs to generate good gains and first downs.

“When you’re able to rush the ball like that, and Glove’s having a game, it makes it a lot easier on the quarterback for sure,” said Bottari.

Glover was quick to spread the credit around for his performance.

“I mean, Luke is giving me my flowers, but having a quarterback as confident as him [is big]. And my offensive line had a hell of a game today,” he said. “When I get to the second level, that’s when my personality comes out, but it all starts up front, so I just want to say thank you to the big guys.”

Sione Vaki was also the most involved offensively he’s been in weeks, contributing 68 yards on seven carries.

Perhaps most importantly, the rush attack put the game away when it needed to.

Colorado gets within six points with 7.5 minutes to go? After one ill-advised pass by Bottari, the Utes ran it nine consecutive times and picked up three first downs, running out the clock.

“That was the difference — our ability to run the ball, and their inability to run the ball,” Whittingham said.

Some suspect pass defense

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colorado Buffaloes cornerback Travis Hunter (12) blocks a tackle from Utah Utes cornerback JaTravis Broughton (4) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

The teams’ respective quarterback situations were not the same.

While the Buffs didn’t put up a ton of yardage in the game, Ryan Staub at least presented a credible downfield threat through the air, going 17 of 24 for 195 yards and a TD.

Not huge numbers, to be sure, but good enough to keep Colorado lingering on the periphery for most of the game.

Of course, Utah’s defense didn’t exactly put up a ton of resistance at times, leading to myriad chunk plays.

Staub had completions of 33, 30, 25, 18, 16, and 16 yards.

And he very nearly had another connection of 29 yards and a touchdown on a play that was initially ruled a catch, then somewhat controversially overturned upon review.

Whittingham was mostly effusive in his praise of his players postgame.

But this was an area he singled out for criticism.

“We did give up some stuff in the throw game, which was disappointing. We were too porous, I guess you could say, in our pass defense,” Whittingham said. “That’s something that hadn’t really shown up all year — we were very good all year in our pass defense. But this was not one of our better games.”

Utah’s vaunted pass rush generated only two sacks in the game, while the secondary did not have an interception or even a single pass breakup.

Good vibes

(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.

It’s easy to be cynical about the importance of beating Deion Sanders and a Colorado team that’s fallen off a cliff following an epic start, and which has a ridiculously bad defense, and which was missing its own starting quarterback.

You’ll forgive the Utes for not caring.

Yes, they began this season with aspirations of winning a third consecutive Pac-12 championship, and yes, relative to that ideal, finishing 8-4 could be viewed as a letdown.

But this team never got Cam Rising. Never got Brant Kuithe. Never got Brandon Rose. Lost Micah Bernard for the season. And Mycah Pittman. And Lander Barton. And Thomas Yassmin. And Jonah Elliss. They played games without Devaughn Vele … and Ja’Quinden Jackson … and Junior Tafuna … and Karene Reid … and Connor O’Toole … and …

You get the point.

It’s all relative.

Whittingham said he’s never had a season with this many significant injuries to significant players.

And they won eight games, and only lost to legitimately good Oregon State, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona teams.

“Winning this last game was really good, you know?” said safety Cole Bishop, who added that he remained undecided for now on a return next season. “Anybody with any type of competitive chip [on their shoulder], no matter what, there’s still something to play for in the next game. You don’t want to lose — ever. … Even when we knew that the championship wasn’t achievable anymore, we still just kept going in every week and trying to get the win.”

Difficult as this season has been, Whittingham is keen for it to continue just a little longer:

“It’s good that this team gets to play together one more time.”

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