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For Utah, there’s plenty to celebrate after win over Oregon

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) looks to pass as Utah and Oregon play an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Utah won 38-7.
Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) looks to pass as Utah and Oregon play an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Utah won 38-7.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham celebrated his 62nd birthday Sunday — and there was even more than that to celebrate after Saturday night’s 38-7 demolition of then-No. 3 Oregon in front of the largest home crowd in school history.

The Utes not only knocked off the Ducks resoundingly, but they also clinched the Pac-12 South Division title, leaped eight spots, up to No. 16, in the Associated Press poll (the Ducks fell to No. 11) — and Whittingham became the winningest coach in school history with 142 victories, eclipsing legendary Ike Armstrong.

“It’s really cool to be a part of it because there are so many players that have come and gone and have contributed to that,” said wide receiver Britain Covey, who scored a touchdown on a 78-yard punt return at the end of the first half.

“You interview coach Whitt about that and the first thing he’ll do is deflect all the credit, but what he’s done is unbelievable.

“I don’t think people realize how much a part of identity of the program we owe to him.”

How did linebacker Devin Lloyd feel about being a part of that record?

“Really, just humbled to be able to be on this team and accomplish such a great accomplishment,” he said. “Coach Whitt is the best coach in Utah football history and he deserves everything that comes his way.”

Quarterback Cam Rising appreciated the milestone as well.

“That’s a pretty surreal moment, especially for him,” Rising said. “The amount of football games he’s won is unreal. I have so much respect for him and everything he does. I love coach Whitt and I’m glad to be a part of that win 142.”

For Whittingham, it was a time for reflection and appreciation.

“I’ll keep deflecting because that’s what I’m good at,” he said. “I just feel blessed. That’s a lot of years of a lot of hard work and a lot goes into that, but as a football coach, it’s different from some other sports, where you can pretty much do it all as the head coach.

“But in football, you can’t. It’s impossible. You have to surround yourself with great people, and fortunately we’ve been able to do that the last 17 years. We’ve had some outstanding assistant coaches come through here. The staff we have now is terrific.

“Obviously, it starts with great players and being able to have recruited and developed so many of those guys that have come through here and contributed.”

Now, Utah, which has won the South Division title for the third time in four years, turns its attention to the final regular-season game Friday (2 p.m., MST, FOX) for Senior Day against Colorado, which defeated Washington 20-17 over the weekend.

“We’re going to get ready for Colorado and try to send our seniors out the right way,” Whittingham said. “They’ve had a great career at Rice-Eccles Stadium and that’s the objective for this week.”

The Utes have enjoyed a meteoric rise this season after opening 1-2 overall. Now, they’re South Division champs.

“It’s great. I’m so proud of our guys,” Whittingham said. “We were sitting there at 1-2 after the first three non-conference games and we were kind of wondering who we were.

“Although we had just lost that third game, (quarterback) Cam (Rising) provided a spark and gave us energy. Between what Cam has done and how he has progressed and the offensive line, that’s really been the biggest keys (to winning the South).”

Against Oregon, Utah rushed for 208 yards, converted 11 of 14 on third downs and was a perfect 5 of 5 in the red zone.

Running back Tavion Thomas ran for 94 yards and three touchdowns and broke the school’s single-season rushing touchdown mark.

He now has 17 TDs on the season.

“He’s a good, physical back,’ Whittingham said of Thomas. “That’s where he really becomes a weapon — in the red zone.”

Defensively, the Utes held the Ducks to 63 yards rushing and 0 of 3 in the red zone.

Whittingham called Saturday, along with a 52-7 whipping of Stanford, his team’s most complete games of the season.

“The Stanford game was pretty complete,” he said. “(Against Oregon) we got three punts off without getting them blocked. We’re really proud of that. Those were the most complete games.”

After playing Colorado, Utah will face the North Division champion — either Oregon, Oregon State or Washington State — in the Pac-12 Championship game in Las Vegas on Dec. 3.

The Ducks and Beavers meet next Saturday in Eugene.

In addition to everything else going on, and everything else that was at stake, Utah was clad in special uniforms against Oregon in honor of the USS Salt Lake City.

One of the surviving sailors of the battleship was in attendance Saturday.

“It was awesome. The players loved them and they were excited to wear them,” said Whittingham, who praised the design of the uniforms.

“To college-aged young men, to wear a uniform that they are really excited about, it gave them a lift. It was part of juice we had out there (Saturday).”

No doubt, it was an unforgettable weekend for the Utes all the way around.

Correction: The original version of this article failed to note that Washington State could also win the Pac-12 North.