It’s a mid-October showdown between the only two unbeaten teams in Pac-12 play.
Utah hosts No. 18 Arizona State Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPN), with the winner taking control of the Pac-12 South.
The fact that the Utes are in this position speaks to their resilience after what they’ve endured this season.
Last Monday, Utah’s team traveled to Texas to attend a memorial service for defensive back Aaron Lowe, who died Sept. 26.
This season, Utes (3-2, 2-0) have seen their nine-game winning streak against BYU end; they’ve seen starting quarterback, Charlie Brewer, abruptly leave; they’ve dropped a triple-overtime game to San Diego State; and they’ve experienced losing Lowe, their friend and teammate.
And yet last Saturday, resilient Utah pounded USC 42-26, earning the program’s first win in Los Angeles since 1916.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s “exceptionally proud” of the way his team has responded in the face of overwhelming adversity.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year is to win the Pac-12. So far, we’re in good shape at this point. We still have tough games ahead, a lot of them,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to play it one week at a time. If we can continue to make progress — the biggest thing coming out of that game on Saturday was the way the offense played and the way they showed up and performed up to their capabilities.”
Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) coach Herm Edwards is impressed with the way Utah has hung in there amid difficult circumstances.
“I can’t speak for them or their situation but I have been in situations like this as a former player with teammates. It brings a different side to it. I think it brings a lot of reflection,” he said. “I think they’ve done a great job through this. … Coach (Whittingham) has done a good job of being a voice, speaking to young men. That’s important. I think they have handled it well.”
Freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III said there’s a reason why the Utes have regained their momentum.
“It speaks to this team’s grit. We’ve got a great amount of leaders. Our leaders are stepping up,” he said. “We’ve got great teammates, guys that are sticking together through all the things that are going on. Guys are starting to bond together as a family. You’re seeing the outcome on Saturdays.”
To capture a Pac-12 championship, Utah will need to get consistent play in all three phases every week.
“It’s so competitive in this league. … It’s a very balanced league and you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every week,” Whittingham said. “Every single week, you’re going to see scores that really surprise you. It shouldn’t surprise you anymore but it does. That’s the nature of the beast in our conference.”
Whittingham is hoping for another strong effort from his offense against ASU.
Tavion Thomas rushed for 116 yards against USC but the Utes have a stable of running backs like Micah Bernard, T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry.
“This puts us in good position in the conference. We’re just barely getting started. We’re still in good shape right now.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham after the win over USC
The Utes are going to go with the back that has momentum, Whittingham said.
“Nobody has really settled in and taken over. Micah has had his moments. T.J. Pledger had a great game a couple of weeks ago. Tavion has had a couple of games of extensive production. Chris Curry hasn’t gotten untracked yet but he’s a valuable member of our team. He’s a great teammate and he has a great attitude. His work ethic is contagious throughout the position group. They’re all bringing something to the table. It’s who has the momentum and the hot hand in any week.”
From a defensive standpoint, the Utes surrendered nearly 500 yards of total offense to USC and Whittingham wants to see an improvement this week.
“Defensively, we didn’t play quite as sharp as we had been. It was the same problem we’ve had with USC over the years — an inability to make enough plays on the ball up the field,” he said. “That’s not just on our secondary. We’ve got to do a better job of disrupting the quarterback with our defensive line, getting him knocked off his spot and not letting him sit back there and get comfortable. It all ties together.”
If the Utes can knock off Arizona State, their goal of a Pac-12 title will remain a possibility.
“This puts us in good position in the conference,” Whittingham said after the win over USC. “We’re just barely getting started. We’re still in good shape right now.”