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Utah sends its seniors out as back-to-back Pac-12 South Division champs with 45-15 win over Colorado

Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) sticks a hand out to stiff-arm Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Carson Wells (26) on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) sticks a hand out to stiff-arm Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Carson Wells (26) on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Moments after a fired-up showing and a celebratory fireworks show lit up the scoreboard and the sky at Rice-Eccles Stadium, University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham delivered a fiery locker-room message to the Ute football team.

“Back-to-back South champions!” a somewhat-hoarse Whittingham shouted to his riled-up players after the Utes secured their second-straight division title and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a 45-15 blowout of Colorado.

(Loud cheers.)

“No. 2,” he continued in a short speech shared on the team’s Twitter account, “game ball to the frickin’ 2019 University of Utah senior class!”

(Loud cheers.)

“No. 3, Alabama lost today!”

(LOUDER CHEERS.)

On a day when the Utes received some help from Auburn — which defeated the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide 48-45 in the Iron Bowl — sixth-ranked Utah did its part (eventually) to continue making a strong case that it belongs in the four-team College Football Playoff.

At the very least, the Utes kept their Rose Bowl dreams alive by securing a conference championship showdown against Oregon this Friday (6 p.m., ABC) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

That’s about as good of a home finale and Senior Night as you can ask for from a team that improved to 11-1 overall and 8-1 in Pac-12 play, won its eighth-straight game, wrapped up a first-ever seven-win season at RES and made a strong showing for a national TV audience.

“Great way for our senior class to go out in their last home game in Rice-Eccles,” Whittingham said in his postgame press conference. “I couldn’t be prouder of this group. They’ve meant so much to our program and have had a big impact on our program. They’re a special group. It is great to go out with this win and go out back-to-back Pac-12 South champions.”

Many of Utah’s familiar storylines repeated themselves on this chilly fall night — including strong defense and efficient and explosive offensive play.

That was bad news for a five-win Colorado team, now 5-6 overall and 3-6 in Pac-12 action, that was hoping to become bowl eligible for just the second time since 2007 and wanted to keep the Utes out of the Pac-12 championship like it did with a late-season win in Utah in 2011.

The terrifying defense, arguably the best in the nation, was once again dominant. Although the Utes finally gave up a touchdown on their home turf after playing keep away from the end zone for 14 straight quarters, Utah limited the Buffaloes to 217 total yards. That included just 60 yards on the ground for Colorado, making the visitors the 11th of 12 opponents to be held under 100 yards rushing.

Not surprisingly, the stingy defensive performance included some sacks (1.5) by defensive end Bradlee Anae, who tied Hunter Dimick’s school record for career sacks (29.5, 2013-16).

“We all came in with the same attitude and the same mentality, but as a defense we don’t feel like we were successful in this game,” Anae said, downplaying the defense’s performance. “They scored twice, and they weren’t supposed to score at all. That’s our mentality every game, no matter who it is, so we just need to get better as a defense.”

The usual stars shined brightly for the offense, too.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley was again tremendously efficient, completing 14 of 17 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in his final outing in front of his home fans.

“It was pretty crazy knowing it was my last game playing at Rice-Eccles,” the Heisman Trophy candidate said. “The Muss was amazing, and we love going out there and playing in front of them.”

As usual, running back Zack Moss churned up a chunk of yardage — 88 yards on 20 carries — and, of course, found his way onto paydirt for his 15th rushing touchdown of the season. He now has a career-best 1,246 yards rushing this season.

Fellow Hallandale High product Demari Simpkins also went out of SLC with a bang, returning a punt 66 yards for a touchdown.

And, last but not least, tight end Brant Kuithe continued his torrid ways of late, scoring three touchdowns to help the Utes overcome an early touchdown deficit and surge ahead with 31 straight points.

“We feel like we’re a complete team,” Whittingham said.

Colorado opened the scoring with a short touchdown pass late in the first quarter.

The Utes, meanwhile, came out like they still had their minds on the Iron Bowl outcome. Or on their next date. Or homework. Or something not including football.

Utah didn’t get its first first down until the end of the first quarter, but that’s when Kuithe helped light a fire under his slow-starting team.

The sophomore tied the score with a 38-yard touchdown reception from Huntley at the 11:21 mark in the second quarter. He then followed a sweet 44-yard jet sweep run with a 7-yard TD catch for a 14-7 lead nine minutes later.

Jadon Redding chipped in a 23-yard field goal before halftime, then Utah scored two more times in the third quarter — a 1-yard run by Devin Brumfield and Simpkins’ career-long punt return — to take a commanding 31-7 lead.

Kuithe capped the big night — one that marked the 10th time the Utes surpassed the 30-point mark — with a 15-yard TD run with five minutes left. That helped Utah surpass the 28.5-point spread.

“We weren’t getting any push at the line of scrimmage to start. Credit to them. They’ve got some big guys up front that force you to run outside,” Whittingham said. “We weren’t getting much to start so we turned to Kuithe who had some big receptions and some big runs as well on that tight end sweep that (offensive coordinator) Andy (Ludwig) has designed.”

Kuithe, who now has nine touchdowns, said he was happy to have a big night to honor the seniors. He racked up a team-high 122 all-purpose yards (63 receiving, 59 rushing).

“They are the seniors — they lead and we follow them. Each year after that, you just need to take over the reins and they did a great job this year,” he said. “And we still have a lot more games left, I feel like. They’re going to lead us, and we are going to follow and win as much as we can.”

GAME NOTES: Utah had never gone 7-0 at home before, but this is the third undefeated home record in Whittingham’s coaching career. The Utes went 6-0 in 2008 and ‘09. ... The Utes have beaten the Buffs seven of nine times since they both joined the Pac-12 in 2011. ... Moss tied John White (2011) for most rushing scores (15) in a season. ... This is the third Pac-12 South title for Utah, which also tied with USC in 2015. ... The Utes reached 11 wins for the third time in school history (12-0 in 2004; 13-0 in 2008).