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After finishing off Colorado and the regular season, No. 19 Utah can prepare for the Pac-12 championship game

SHARE After finishing off Colorado and the regular season, No. 19 Utah can prepare for the Pac-12 championship game

Utah players light the “U” symbol as they celebrate their win against Colorado after an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Blame it on the tryptophan. 

Or blame it on a natural letdown for No. 19 Utah that wasn’t entirely unexpected after all of the euphoria that surrounded the walloping of Oregon last week while anticipating what’s next — next week’s Pac-12 Championship game. 

Or attribute it to the, um, you know, heated Utah-Colorado rivalry.  

The Pac-12 likes to promote the annual regular-season finale between the Utes and Buffaloes as The Rumble in the Rockies. Well, Colorado put a Rumble in the Rumble in the Rockies at Rice-Eccles Stadium — at least for a while, as the spunky Buffs kept things interesting on the day after Thanksgiving. 

In the end, though, the Utes, 24-point favorites, put together a 28-13 victory over Colorado on Senior Day. 

“We didn’t have the look in our eye like we did last week,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, referring to the 38-7 win over then-No. 3 Oregon. “We did play well enough to win.”

“It’s obvious that we didn’t play to our best, but at this point, that doesn’t matter. We send the upperclassmen out right at Rice-Eccles,” said wide receiver Britain Covey.

“And it’s nice to just be able to focus on what we really want to focus on right now. It took a lot to really focus on this game throughout the week because our whole entire offseason, we’re talking about the Pac-12 Championship, so we are excited to be able to look forward now. We’re not even going to celebrate this victory. The moment we get home, we’re just preparing.”

When the two teams met Friday afternoon, the Utes had already clinched the Pac-12 South title, knowing they have a date next Friday in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas, which will be one of the biggest contests in program history. 

Colorado, on the other hand, entered the contest having won just four games. Ravaged by injuries, CU didn’t even have bowl-eligibility to play for. 

It didn’t figure to be much of a challenge for Utah on Senior Day, but it was closer than most expected.

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective.

“A good conclusion to the regular season. We did what we needed to do,” Whittingham said. “Now we’ve got to sit back and wait and find out who our opponent is going to be Friday in Las Vegas.”

The Utes will play either Oregon, Oregon State or Washington State. The Ducks and Beavers square off Saturday. 

Colorado ended its season with a 4-8 record, 3-6 in the Pac-12. Utah improved to 9-3 and 8-1.  

There were plenty of distractions for the Utes and Buffaloes this week.

“It’s difficult for both teams,” Covey said about the focus going into the game. “We were a little bit sluggish. We had a great week of practice. It doesn’t always translate to the game.

“It’s not like we looked past them or anything. We knew that they were a great team, so credit to them. They were playing to ruin our season, and sometimes that’s more motivation than anything.”

CU produced some fireworks at the end of the first half and the second half on back-to-back plays that put a little scare into the Utes. 

The first half ended with freshman placekicker Cole Becker nailing a 56-yard field goal. Then freshman Nikko Reed, in his first game as the Buffaloes’ kickoff returner, took back the opening kickoff of the second half 100 yards for a touchdown. 

It marked the third time this season that the Utes have given up a kickoff return for a touchdown.

“That’s something we thought we had corrected,” Whittingham said.  

And at that point, Colorado trailed by just one point, 14-13. 

But then Utah scored a couple of third-quarter touchdowns — a 12-yard run by Tavion Thomas and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Cam Rising to Covey — to re-take control of the game. 

Rising completed 14 of 23 passes for 179 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Thomas ran 25 times for 142 yards and a TD while T.J. Pledger gained 103 yards on 13 carries.

Covey caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown while Dalton Kincaid had four receptions for 55 yards and a TD and Brant Kuithe hauled in two passes for 35 yards and a score. 

Utah out-gained Colorado in total offense, 444-148. 

“The defense played exceptionally well today — 148 yards and zero touchdowns,”  Whittingham said. “It’s about as good as it gets.” 

“My guys really stepped up and showed out today,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd, who is expected to play in the NFL next season.

“It was something special to be able to do that, especially to do that in my last time in this stadium. I wouldn’t have rather gone out in any other way than with these guys.”

So naturally, after coming off a 31-point thrashing of Oregon in prime time on national television less than a week earlier, the Utes fell behind 3-0 early in against Colorado. 

On the fourth play from scrimmage, Rising threw a pass that was intercepted by Mark Perry, who had a 40-yard return to give the Buffaloes the ball at the Utah 15-yard line.

“It sailed on me,” Rising said of the throw. 

Colorado’s offense didn’t gain a yard on that first possession but it got on the scoreboard first with a 33-yard field goal by Becker. 

Then on their second possession, the Utes’ drive stalled at the CU 19-yard line. Jadon Redding’s 37-yard field goal was blocked. 

At that point, Utah had 72 yards of total offense, Colorado had zero yards of total offense but the Buffs still led by three and the Utes remained scoreless.  

The Buffaloes marched into Utah territory late in the first quarter but came away empty as they missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. 

With 12:23 left in the second quarter, the Utes finally broke through when Rising completed a 19-yard touchdown strike to Kuithe to take a 7-3 advantage. 

It didn’t take long for Utah to go up 14-3 as Rising threw a 28-yard TD pass to Dalton Kincaid with 8:08 remaining in the half. 

But after being stopped on fourth down in CU territory, the Buffaloes ended up scoring again as Becker drilled a 56-yard field goal as time expired at the end of the half to make it 14-6. 

In the second half, besides that 100-yard kickoff return by Colorado, Utah finished off the Buffs. 

The Utes tried to extend their lead in the fourth quarter, but they turned the ball over on downs at the CU 26-yard line. 

It was that kind of day for Utah. 

“Offensively, we weren’t as efficient and we didn’t execute quite as well as we have been over the past six or seven weeks,” Whittingham said.

“But we did enough to win the football game. It wasn’t our best performance. Credit Colorado. They played hard and slowed us down a little bit.”

Now the Utes will play for the Pac-12 championship, and a berth in the Rose Bowl, next Friday night in Las Vegas.

“It was a positive ending to the season,” Whittingham said. “A positive ending to a very positive season, but we still have work to do.”

EXTRA POINTS: Announced attendance was 51,538 … Utah won eight of its final nine games to end the regular season … The Utes now lead the all-time series against Colorado 33-32-3 … Nephi Sewell recorded a team-high 10 tackles while Lloyd finished with nine.