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How Utah ran past UCLA to take control of the Pac-12 South race

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Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) evades a tackle from UCLA Bruins defensive back Martell Irby (12) on his way to scoring a touchdown during the game between Utah and UCLA at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

Adam Fondren, Journal staff, Adam Fondren for the Deseret News

By the time the dust settled and the cobwebs faded, after trick-or-treaters had long to bed late Saturday night on Halloween Eve, Utah found itself, once again, in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South.

Quite a trick, and a treat, for the Utes.

Amid what’s been another topsy-turvy season, Utah is in control of its path to the Pac-12 championship game after a dominating 44-24 victory over UCLA Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

It happened in large part behind the legs of running back Tavion Thomas and stellar blocking by the offensive line. 

“The key to the game was being able to run the football,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “(The Bruins) were tremendous against defending the run going in — 90 yards, and we got 290. That was the key to the whole thing.”

Thomas tied a school record for most rushing touchdowns in a single game — four, matching the mark last set by Joe Williams in 2016. 

Thomas rushed 24 times for 160 yards, and three of his TD runs came in the first half — two of which were part of a 21-point second quarter for the Utes. 

He gave most of the credit to the offensive line.

“They were moving that thing. That made it easy for me,” Thomas said. “Everybody was doing their job.”

Redshirt freshman Ethan Garbers started at quarterback for UCLA instead of star Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who suffered an arm injury last week in a loss to Oregon. 

While Garbers may not be as dynamic as Thompson-Robinson, he kept the Bruins close for stretches, completing 27 of 44 passes for 265 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. UCLA gained 411 yards of total offense but only 146 on the ground, well below its season average. 

The Ute defense stiffened a week after a leaky performance in a 42-34 loss at Oregon State. 

“I felt like last week we didn’t play our best football,” said safety Brandon McKinney. “Our energy wasn’t there. We came back and dominated today.”

In the end, the Bruins were no match for the Utes. 

With the victory, Utah (5-3, 4-1) now owns a two-game lead over Arizona State (5-3, 3-2), which got throttled at home earlier in the day at Washington State. And the Utes now have even a larger cushion over UCLA (5-4, 3-3). 

And two of Utah’s final four regular-season games are against Arizona (0-8, 0-5) and Colorado (2-6, 1-4). 

“With Arizona State getting beat, it puts us in a pretty good position. We still have a ton of football left. We all understand that,” Whittingham said. “But for the moment, for right now, we’re in a pretty good spot. We just have to continue to get better as a football team.”

Quarterback Cam Rising, who completed 17of 27 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, said his team isn’t paying attention to the Pac-12 standings. 

“We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on finishing the rest of the season off strong,” he said. “We’re making sure that we’re in the right position we want to be in, not focused on anybody else.”

Utah wasted no time setting the tone early Saturday by taking the opening kickoff and efficiently marching 75 yards, capped by Thomas’ first touchdown, a 10-yarder. 

UCLA got on the scoreboard on its opening drive on a 28-yard field goal. 

The Utes extended their lead to 14-3 on the first play of the second quarter on an 8-yard TD run by Thomas.

The Bruins closed the gap with a 30-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet to make it 14-10.

Dalton Kincaid put Utah up 21-10 with 5:51 remaining in the second quarter when he caught a 4-yard TD pass.

Moments later, Nephi Sewell picked off Garbers and returned it 11 yards to the UCLA 17-yard line. One play later, Thomas scored his third touchdown of the night from 10 yards out — he benefited from a crushing block by offensive lineman Sataoa Laumea — and it was 28-10 for Utah.

“The offensive line deserves a huge shout-out. You don’t get 290 yards rushing without a lot of movement going on up front,” Whittingham said. “Our offensive line rose to the challenge. Tavion was outstanding. He’s really turning into a workhorse for us. It’s position what he’s doing for our team.”

“It was great watching everybody make those amazing blocks,” Rising said. “The O-line did a great job.”

Later, the Utes turned the ball over on downs at the Bruin 36-yard line. UCLA drove into Utah territory just before halftime but missed a field goal as time expired.

And the Utes held an 18-point lead at intermission. 

With five minutes left in the third quarter, the Bruins cut the deficit to 28-17 on a drive that saw UCLA start at its own 9-yard line. On the first play, Garbers completed a 41-yard pass to Chase Coda and the Bruins scored on a six-yard TD from Garbers to Greg Dulcich. 

After a scoreless third quarter, the Utes built its lead to 35-17 on a 12-yard touchdown run by Rising. 

But the Bruins countered on their next possession with a 75-yard drive that culminated in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Garbers to Dulcich. 

“The defense played okay, not great,” Whittingham said. “We still have things we have to get better at.”

Utah all but sealed the win with 7:16 remaining in the game when Hauati Pututau sacked Garbers for a six-yard loss in the end zone. The safety put the Utes up 37-24. 

Thomas recorded his fourth and final touchdown of the night on a 24-yard run with 4:40 remaining to make it 44-24.

Rising was all smiles after the victory. 

“We’ve got a group of dogs and they just don’t stop going,” he said. “They just keep that gas peddle put down and go. It’s really fun and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Utah visits Stanford Friday night. 

EXTRA POINTS: Utah set an new attendance record Saturday night with a crowd of 51,922 … Devin Lloyd missed the first half due to a targeting penalty in last week’s loss at Oregon State … Paul Maile moved to center, in place of Nick Ford, who played left guard … UCLA converted 7 of 9 fourth down conversion attempts … Rising had a 35-yard pooch punt in the third quarter that was downed at the 9-yard line. In the fourth quarter, he punted a 43-yarder to the UCLA 6-yard line … Utah safety Vonte Davis was injured early in the fourth quarter but after being attended to by trainers, he walked off the field on his own power.