U-turn: How Utes landed in the Pac-12 championship game after dismal 1-2 start
Utah has won eight of its last nine games and captured another Pac-12 South Division crown. Can the Utes close the deal and finally win their first conference title Friday?
Back on Sept. 11, the day then-No. 10 Oregon knocked off then-No. 7 Ohio State at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Utah got beat by BYU in Provo, ending a nine-game winning streak against its rivals.
Utes on the air
No. 10 Oregon (10-2 , 7-2)
vs. No. 17 Utah (9-3, 8-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700
It appeared that the two programs were going in opposite directions — especially after the following week, when the Utes fell in triple overtime at San Diego State.
Yes, the Utes and Ducks have followed their own circuitous paths to the Pac-12 championship game Friday (6 p.m. MST, ABC).
But in mid-September, few figured that Utah would be in this position when it owned a 1-2 record.
How were the Utes (9-3, 8-1) able to win eight of their last nine games and perform this kind of remarkable U-turn?
‘We always knew that we had it within us’
During fall camp in August, Utah’s players and coaches were confident because of the large number of returning players and their experience.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said on more than a couple of occasions that this team, particularly the leadership and talent among the players, reminded him of the 2019 team that posted an 11-3 record, rose to No. 5 in the rankings, and won the Pac-12 South Division.
But the season got off to a rocky start.
Linebacker Devin Lloyd never lost faith in his team and what it could accomplish.
“I knew this dating back to last year. It’s a big reason why I came back — believing in everybody in this program and understanding the culture we have and the mindset this team has,” he said. “This is kind of what I expected. It didn’t start out exactly how we wanted it but we’re finishing exactly how we wanted, if not better. I’m just really excited for the future.”
“We always knew that we had it within us. It comes down to execution,” said defensive lineman Mika Tafua. “At the beginning of the season, we didn’t do that as well. We’re finding ourselves now and it’s fun.”
Wide receiver Britain Covey said it came down to establishing an identity.
“That’s another theme of this year. A lesson that everyone will take from this is, know who you are because circumstances change but you just have to know who you are,” he said. “I think that’s what it was with this team. I preached how good this team could be before the season. Then the first three games happened and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, they’re just blowing smoke.’ But I knew what we were capable of. It’s really cool to see it come to fruition.”
Lloyd won’t forget what this team had to go through, including a midseason setback at Oregon State, to arrive at their current stop — the Pac-12 title game, with a Rose Bowl berth at stake.
“The first three games, going 1-2, those really stick with us. Also losing to a good Oregon State team,” Lloyd said. “Those losses are still in our heads but we’re obviously playing a lot better than we were.”
Now, Utah is one of six Power Five programs, and the only Pac-12 team, that’s ranked in the top 30 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
While the Utes lost in the third OT, Rising proved that he was a dynamic playmaker that the offense needed.
“Cam is in control. He has a great deal of confidence,” Whittingham said. “He’s a student of the game and a football junkie. He’s the kind of guy you want playing quarterback. He understands the game.”
But Rising’s emergence as a thrower and a runner are only one aspect of the offense’s rise.
The offensive line, which was porous at times early in the season, got healthier, and found a rhythm. Whittingham attributes that success to “cohesiveness” that developed as the season progressed.
“I don’t want to say we waited too late to find the right five guys because there were injuries and it was like a revolving door there for a while,” he said. “But once we settled in with five or six guys, they started to feel more comfortable as the weeks ticked by. (Offensive coordinator) Jim (Harding) continued to develop those guys. Bamidele Olaseni, who was not real comfortable early in the year but now he’s playing as good as any left tackle in the conference.”
“We have, I think, the best tight ends, as a group, in the country,” Whittingham said. “Those guys are tremendous.”
While Utah began the season using multiple running backs, Tavion Thomas emerged as an every down back. He’s rushed 168 times for 978 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“Tavion Thomas has been a huge factor for us,” Whittingham said.
Thomas’ trajectory this season has mirrored his team’s trajectory. He started the season fumbling a few times, which limited his playing time.
Covey said he had a conversation with Thomas after the BYU game.
“He was pretty down. I basically said, ‘Remember how you feel right now because you’re going to be on top once again. And you’re going to be on the bottom once again. It’s just understanding and trusting who you are.’ We knew from fall camp, we saw it. We’d go home and I’d tell my parents, ‘Tavion’s going to be special.’ All of us helped him know that we still trusted him after those first three games when he had some fumbles because we saw who he was day in and day out. It’s really cool to see.”
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig deserves credit for his play-calling.
“Andy’s play-calling has been outstanding all year. We really figured out who we were in Game 4,” Whittingham said. “That’s when we figured out what makes us go and we’ve taken off from there.”
Ludwig has molded the offense to the Utes’ strengths.
“That’s been our mentality for weeks now, where it’s coach Ludwig’s philosophy. It’s pretty old school but if you’ve got a team that buys into it, it works,” Covey said. “We run the ball, even if you know we’re going to run the ball, we’re going to run the ball until you come in to stop us and then we’re going to be a great play-action pass team. It’s getting the guys to buy into it and we’ve really bought into it.”
As the Utes head into the Pac-12 championship game, the offense knows exactly who it is.
“We’re getting to the point of the season where we have such a great identity on offense,” Covey said. “You trust it. You stay behind it and you roll with it.”
In Pac-12 games only, the Utes lead the conference in scoring (37.2 points per game), touchdowns scored (45), total offense (454.8 yards per game), rushing offense (240.7) and passing efficiency (145.7).
Utah’s young defense uncharacteristically started the season slowly, allowing BYU and SDSU to run almost at will. Later, the Utes surrendered 260 yards rushing at Oregon State.
But in Utah’s 38-7 victory over Oregon on Nov. 20, the Utes held the run-oriented Ducks to 63 yards, illustrating how much the defense had improved over the course of the season.
“Are we a finished product yet, where we need to be? No. We’re still not quite as big and strong as we need to be. We have some freshmen kids that next year will be 10, 15 or 20 pounds heavier and stronger,” Whittingham said. “That will be a boost for us. Relative to some of the struggles we had earlier this season, we’re playing much, much better football right now up front.
“We’ve started three freshmen. Those guys seem to be getting better and better as the weeks go by. We have work to do but the future is very bright at that position. Right now we’ve made a lot of progress from Game 1 to where we are now but we need to continue to take steps forward.”
Lloyd and Tafua have led the defense and helped the younger players like defensive linemen Van Fillinger and Junior Tafuna and safety Cole Bishop find their stride.
“We’ve got so many (freshmen). We’ve said it during the course of the season quite a few times how many freshmen are contributing on defense,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, the COVID reset contributed to that. But never in my time here have we had anywhere near the number of freshmen making major contributions like we do now. I think the future of the defense is very good.”
Utah’s defense ranks No. 4 nationally in tackles-for-loss per game (7.6) and No. 12 in team sacks per game (3.17).
Having fun together
One of the things Whittingham likes most about this team is the way it has meshed during the season.
“The chemistry. It’s not tangible or a statistic. But the chemistry, the way they’re enjoying what they’re doing, their work ethic, having fun, playing together,” he said. “It all comes from great leadership. That’s the most key thing that we have going for us.”
Certainly, since that 1-2 start to the season, the players and coaches are enjoying themselves.
“It’s no fun not to win games and, in my opinion, underachieve,” Whittingham said. “That really gets under your skin. But once we started having things click and you could see we were trending in the right direction, it was a lot more enjoyable.”
And the Utes are hoping this joy ride carries them to a Pac-12 championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.