STANFORD, California — It’s a perplexing philosophical question sports writers were pondering in the press box here Friday night.
If a Tree falls in a relatively empty stadium and few are around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The answer is yes. Yes, it does, and that sound was a resounding thud, as the Utes flattened Stanford, 52-7.
In front of a sparse crowd at Stanford Stadium, Utah (6-3, 5-1) played a complete game — one that was all but over early in the second quarter — and increased its first-place lead in the Pac-12 South.
“We started fast and never really let up,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
The Cardinal (3-6, 2-5), which is in last place in the Pac-12 North, fell and couldn’t get up en route to its fourth consecutive loss.
While Stanford fans stayed away in droves, a hearty contingent of Ute fans were in attendance, preventing the game from sounding like it was being played in 2020.
For the second consecutive week, Utah running back Tavion Thomas ran wild, gaining 177 yards on 20 attempts, averaging 8.9 yards per carry.
Last week against UCLA, Thomas recorded four touchdown runs to tie a school record. He tied that feat in the first half Friday with four more TDs. Thomas had a chance to make it five TDs early in the fourth quarter but was stopped for a one-yard loss at the 3-yard line.
Thomas wasn’t the only Ute to etch his name in the record books — running back T.J. Pledger’s 96-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the longest rush from the line of scrimmage in school history.
Against Stanford, Utah produced three 100-yard rushers — Thomas, Micah Bernard (110) and Pledger (107).
“We feel really good about the running back room,” Whittingham said. “We feel we have a good stable of backs.”
With 441 rushing yards, it marked the fourth-most rushing yards in school history.
Yeah, there were plenty of superlatives on this night.
“We’re working hard and it’s paying off,” Thomas said.
For the second consecutive week, Utah’s defense faced a backup quarterback. Last Saturday, UCLA’s Ethan Garbers replaced an injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the Utes capitalized.
Friday night, Stanford’s Jack West replaced an injured Tanner McKee. Another QB, Isaiah Sanders, also took snaps for the Cardinal, and the Utes capitalized again — holding Stanford to 167 yards of offense.
“Our defense smothered them and played exceptional,” Whittingham said.
In the fourth quarter, Utah’s defense got on the scoreboard when linebacker Devin Lloyd snatched a West pass out of the sky and stepped into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown, presumably the program’s shortest pick-six in history. That put the Utes up 45-7.
Just how dominating were the Utes on both sides of the ball?
With 6:37 remaining in the second quarter, Utah led Stanford 28-0 and had rolled up 307 yards of offense compared to nine for the Cardinal.
With 3:10 remaining in the first half, the Utes had out-gained Stanford 403-19. At halftime, Utah had more points (38) than Stanford had yards (28).
At that point, the Utes had 323 rushing yards. Also, Utah had accumulated more rushing yards at halftime than any team had amassed in a full game against the Cardinal since 2010.
Dominating is an understatement.
“The statistics were so skewed at halftime,” Whittingham said, “I don’t know how we could have played better.”
Utah sent a message from the outset that it wasn’t going to take a struggling Stanford team lightly. The Utes made it look easy while scoring on their opening drive for the fourth consecutive game, capped by a 10-yard TD run by Thomas.
And they were off and running.
“We like to start fast and get things going early, setting the tone,” said quarterback Cam Rising, who completed 13 of 22 passes for 140 yards.
Utah basically rammed it down Stanford’s throat with Thomas, and the Cardinal was powerless to stop it.
The Utes did make a few mistakes Friday. One of those miscues came with 57 seconds remaining in the first quarter, when Rising mishandled a high snap from center Paul Maile, which squirted away toward the sideline and was recovered by Stanford.
But on the Utes’ next possession, Thomas scored on a 58-yard touchdown to put the Utes up 21-0 midway through the second quarter.
Thomas added another TD, then Pledger got into the act with his 96-yarder. Jadon Redding tacked on a field goal at the end of the first half to give Utah a 38-zip advantage, prompting the question — does college football have a mercy rule?
At intermission, the Utes had 440 yards of offense, including 336 on the ground. Stanford had five rushing yards at halftime.
Stanford finally got on the scoreboard on its opening drive of the second half, as Sanders scored on a 4-yard touchdown run with 10:14 remaining in the third quarter to make it 38-7.
That was one of the brief occasions that Stanford put up much of a fight against Utah.
The Utes visit Arizona next Saturday.
EXTRA POINTS: Utah backup quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson came into the game with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter … Friday marked Utah’s 50th victory as a member of the Pac-12 … The Utes are 50-42 overall in the league since joining in 2011 … Utah has now won 16 of its last 19 Pac-12 games.