I think there’s a lot to build on this season. But it would certainly be an exclamation point on the season if we were able to get a win this week. – Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — For the second time in four years of Pac-12 membership, it’s come down to this. The Utah Utes (7-4, 4-4) enter the finale against Colorado (2-9, 0-8) in need of a victory to secure the program’s first winning season in the league.
In 2011, a 17-14 loss to the Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium cost the Utes a chance to play in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. Saturday at Folsom Stadium in Boulder, it’s more about reaching the milestone.
“It’s a step in the right direction and something to build on if we’re able to do that,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who added that there have been a lot of positives this season regardless of what happens in the final game.
Whittingham noted that the Utes have fared well on the road (winning at UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford) and have gone toe-to-toe with heavyweights of the conference (defeating USC at home and dropping an overtime decision at Arizona State).
“So I think there’s a lot to build on this season,” Whittingham said. “But it would certainly be an exclamation point on the season if we were able to get a win this week.”
Sophomore kicker Andy Phillips, a team captain, acknowledged that finishing Pac-12 play with a 5-4 record would be huge for the Utes.
“We understand that future seasons are built upon our success right now,” he said. “So, as a team, we’re trying to do as much as we can to help out our future teams as well.”
Clint Shepard, a junior defensive lineman, agrees that it would be a big accomplishment and good for the team’s future in the Pac-12.
“We had a lot of big wins this year so we know that we’re capable of winning,” Shepard said. “We’re capable of competing against any team and we have. Most of our team is returning next year. So I think this year is going to play a huge impact on next year.”
A win on Saturday would also distance the Utes from the sting of last week’s 42-10 home setback to Arizona.
“We’re moving on. It doesn’t do any good for us to dwell on the loss. We watched film. We saw what we can work on,” Shepard said. “So this week we’re just going to take those things and look forward to Colorado.”
Another game, another opportunity.
“Any win is a great thing but getting wins in the Pac-12 is no easy feat for anybody,” said senior tight end Westlee Tonga, who pointed out that it’s especially tough in the South Division where five of the six teams have spent time ranked in the top 25 this season. “That’s quite a gauntlet to run through. But being able to go through this season, play the way that we did, and come out with as many wins as we have has been a really good thing for us.”
The Utes have already clinched a winning season overall for the first time since going 8-5 in 2011. They’re coming off of back-to-back 5-7 campaign, going 3-6 in Pac-12 play in 2012 and 2-7 last year.
EXTRA POINTS: Defensive end Hunter Dimick, who left the Arizona game early with an undisclosed injury, still tops the depth chart on the left side. Whittingham declined to offer an update on Dimick’s status other than to say they’re hopeful for this weekend. As of now, though, Whittingham said it’s “unknown” if he’ll play against Colorado. ... The Utes lead the nation in sacks (49) for the eighth-straight week. Defensive end Nate Orchard is tied for first with 17 1/2. ... Wide receiver Dres Anderson and defensive back Eric Rowe have joined Orchard in accepting invitations to the Senior Bowl, Jan. 24 in Mobile, Alabama. ... Tom Hackett tops the country in punts inside the 20-yard line (34) and 10-yard-line (19).
Utah (7-4, 4-4) at Colorado (2-9, 0-8)
Saturday, 11 a.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700 AM