Just seven days ago, Utah’s hopes of winning its division took a huge hit after the team blew a 21-point lead against Washington State.
However, thanks to a very aggressive pass rush and some stellar play from their backup quarterback, the Utes still control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South race.
Let’s be honest: no one gave Utah much of a chance to win this game. Even after the Utes took a 14-0 lead on a spectacular catch by Dres Anderson in the first half, you could sense that the ESPN broadcasting crew expected the team to buckle under pressure as it did a week ago.
Despite the commentators reminding us about this epic collapse in every other sentence, it didn’t happen. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive staff put together a brilliant scheme to take UCLA out of its game plan, holding it to 406 yards – 80 less than it averaged coming into the contest. The Ute defensive line harassed Brett Hundley all night long, recording 10 sacks and knocking him to the ground on a number of other occasions. The rush was so dominant at one point in the fourth quarter that it recorded three sacks in a row during the period.
However, the game ball has to go the Ute offense. Kendal Thompson took over as the signal caller, replacing Travis Wilson, and had a monster night, rushing for 83 yards and completing 10-of-13 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. His mobility opened up the running game for Devontae Booker, who finished the night with 156 yards. Not surprisingly, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen relied exclusively on these two in the Utes’ final series, which resulted in Andy Phillips’ decisive field goal with just under 35 seconds remaining.
So, what does Saturday night’s win mean in the grand scheme of things?
For starters, it gives Utah a signature win to hang its hat on. Sure, they beat Stanford last year, but the Utes finished 2-7 in conference play. However, with its win over UCLA, Utah remains in contention for the division crown, something it expected to do when it left the Mountain West Conference at the conclusion of the 2010 season.
More importantly, the victory puts Kyle Whittingham’s team in control of its own destiny. After Saturday’s carnage in the Top 25, there aren’t many one-loss teams out there that can say that. Utah will get to play Arizona, USC, and Arizona State — the three teams ahead of the Utes in the division standings — in the coming weeks. That’s all this team could have asked for.
On a national level, this result means that with UCLA, Oregon and Stanford all playing each other, the Pac-12 has a smaller margin for error in terms of placing a one-loss team in the College Football Playoff. With Stanford, Oregon, USC, and now UCLA all losing on a remarkable Saturday, the Pac-12 is a conference defined more by balance and parity than by a few teams that stand above the crowd.
Utah, though, will get a chance to rise above the rest of the Pac-12 South in due time. If the Utes can somehow reach the Pac-12 Championship Game in San Francisco, they’ll be right where they need to be as a program after the struggles of the past few seasons.