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Utes keep eye on the prize, but 'there is still a lot of ball left to play' says Whittingham

Utah Utes linebacker Chase Hansen (22) and Utah Utes linebacker Cody Barton (30) celebrate after a quarterback sack as Utah and Stanford play a football game in Palo Alto California on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Utah Utes linebacker Chase Hansen (22) and Utah Utes linebacker Cody Barton (30) celebrate after a quarterback sack as Utah and Stanford play a football game in Palo Alto California on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PASADENA, Calif. — If the Utah Utes have their way, Friday night’s game against UCLA will be a dress rehearsal of sorts. For obvious reasons, they would love to come back to the Rose Bowl for another game — as Pac-12 champions — on Jan. 1.

That’s the big picture.

However, there are some smaller — but quite significant — steps the Utes must take first. Namely, win a South Division title and earn a berth in the conference championship game.

Utah (5-2, 3-2) is on track to do so. That said, there are still four Pac-12 games left to play and the only sure way to finish on top is to win them all.

“I think in terms of just the standings alone, it’s good to feel like we’re in control,” said senior linebacker Chase Hansen. “As long as we play our best ball, beat UCLA this week and go from there, then it’s kind of in our hand. So it’s always a good feeling to have.”

Even Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who tends to avoid such talk, acknowledged the Utes “have a little momentum” on their side after reeling off wins against projected Pac-12 contenders Stanford, Arizona and USC.

Utah’s offense, defense and special teams are all playing a part. The conference took note, naming quarterback Tyler Huntley, Hansen and kicker Matt Gay as its current players of the week.

The Utes, though, aren’t sitting back and enjoying the accolades.

“We are just barely over the halfway point in the season, so there is still a lot of ball left to play,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead and so we are just trying to be consistent in our approach. There are things we are doing well, but there are a lot of things we can improve on — and that is where our focus is."

Then, there’s UCLA. After opening the season with five straight losses, the Bruins bounced back to defeat California and Arizona the past two weeks.

“They are coming off a couple of wins and have some momentum right now. They scored 30-plus points in each of those games,” Whittingham said. “So we have to go down and play well again. That’s the nature of the conference, you have to play well week in and week out.”

Utah has bowl eligibility on the line. The Utes are one win away from achieving it for the 12th time in 14 seasons under Whittingham, who expressed a determination to stay on an even keel and have the team avoid ever being too high or too low.

“We just want to be consistent in our approach. This group has been great about that. Their preparation each week has been very consistent,” he said. “No peaks or valleys, they come out and take care of their business on the practice field, in the meeting room and that is really where it starts. They have done a great job of that."

Following the UCLA contest, Utah closes out its Pac-12 slate with games at Arizona State (Nov. 3) and Colorado (Nov. 17), as well as a home date against Oregon (Nov. 10).

• • •

Utah (5-2, 3-2) at UCLA (2-5, 2-2)

  • Rose Bowl — Pasadena, Calif.
  • Friday, 8:30 p.m. (MT)
  • TV: ESPN2
  • Radio: ESPN 700AM