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Has U. found even ground?

Now 3-3, Utes seeking consistency

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes have evened their overall record at 3-3.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes have evened their overall record at 3-3.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Which way will they go?

At 3-3 overall, the Utes are at a crossroads midway through the season. They do, however, have momentum on their side.

Friday night's 44-35 victory over Louisville gave Utah its first two-game winning streak of the season and was the program's third triumph in four games.

"That's two weeks in a row that we've played pretty decent," said head coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that the Utes are developing consistency.

Enough, as it has turned out, to knock off two teams that began the season ranked in the top 25 polls — UCLA and Louisville.

Senior safety Steve Tate acknowledged the victories have provided a big boost and a step in the right direction.

"This team has got to believe in itself. We've beaten two great football teams," he said. "We've got to realize our potential and we've got to ride it."

Utah's recent run of success followed a frustrating start to the season. A rash of injuries and inconsistency led to a 1-3 mark. Setbacks were dished out by Oregon State, Air Force and UNLV.

"Obviously if we had things our way, we wouldn't want to be in that situation," Tate said. "But, hey, we'll take the wins where we can get them."

On Saturday, the Utes venture back into Mountain West Conference play, where they're in desperate need of victories. An 0-2 start has put them in a big hole early.

The loss to UNLV, in particular, proved especially painful.

"It was a lesson," defensive tackle Gabe Long said. "It was a lesson to show us not to get too full of ourself. We're not unbeatable."

Proper preparation and execution are things the Utes value as much as anything.

Quarterback Brian Johnson said the team has a lot of character and heart. The Utes will continue to fight, he explained.

"We've got to find a way to keep getting motivated week in and week out," Johnson said.

Consistency has become more frequent as players like Johnson heal from injuries. After missing a couple of games with a shoulder separation, the junior quarterback has reclaimed his starting job. He's completed 62-of-92 passes this season for 690 yards and four touchdowns.

Utah's offense has benefitted greatly by the establishment of a ground game. Darrell Mack is entrenched as the starting tailback. He's now on pace to reach the 1,000-yard milestone, racking up 516 in five games. Mack, who was originally going to redshirt this season, credits the offensive line for getting a good push off the ball in recent weeks.

Mack was pressed into duty when Matt Asiata suffered a broken leg in the season opener at Oregon State.

On the receiving front, Bradon Godfrey has a team-high 27 receptions after six games. He and the other receivers have had to pick up the slack after all-conference candidate Brent Casteel went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Defensively, Tate leads the Utes 57 stops. Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester tops the team with 6.5 tackles-for-loss, while defensive end Martail Burnett has four sacks. Cornerback Sean Smith has three interceptions.

"They want to win and they want to compete extremely hard," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who noted there's still plenty of work to do.

Assisting the effort for both the offense and defense has been Utah's special teams. Kicker/punter Louie Sakoda is having another strong season and return specialist Derrek Richards (10 punt returns for 176 yards and a touchdown) has helped the Utes achieve favorable field position in recent weeks.

It's part of the big picture — Utah's determination to play at a high level in all aspects of the game.

Johnson said the Utes are combating any chance of a letdown like the UNLV loss after the UCLA win by the way they prepare each day. He's confident the team has the leadership to avoid another pitfall.

"I think we've got the leadership on the team to make sure that doesn't happen," Johnson said.

Utah's final six games of the regular season include home dates against San Diego State, Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as road dates at TCU, Colorado State and BYU.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com