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What No. 12 Utah’s opportunistic win over Oregon State means amid the early Pac-12 race

Utah turned in a strong second-half performance, outscoring the Beavers 21-3 over the final 30 minutes, as it emerged victorious

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Utah Utes defensive tackle Aliki Vimahi (95) and teammates celebrate a stop on third down as Utah and Oregon State play.

Utah Utes defensive tackle Aliki Vimahi (95) and teammates celebrate a stop on third down as Utah and Oregon State play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As Saturday’s game against Oregon State demonstrated, the Pac-12 race this fall could be quite an adventure for No. 12 Utah. 

And the degree of difficulty is only going to get tougher from here.

In their first challenge amid what figures to be an arduous stretch this month, the Utes vanquished the Beavers 42-16 on the first day of October at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

But the final score was somewhat misleading. It was a 12-point margin, with OSU driving, late in the third quarter before an opportunistic Utah team pulled away. 

If Utah (4-1, 2-0) hopes to repeat as Pac-12 champions, it will need to survive a gauntlet of tough upcoming games. 

“I think this football team took another step forward this week,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve just got to keep doing that. That’s the key. We’re trying to win a championship. You’ve got to get better week after week after week.”

In their first contest without star tight end Brant Kuithe, who suffered a season-ending injury in last week’s victory at Arizona State, the Utes sputtered at times offensively and the defense surrendered a lot of yards (417 overall and 171 on the ground) to OSU — but it also forced four interceptions and allowed only one touchdown on the day.

Cornerback Clark Phillips III finished with three (III) — count ‘em — interceptions.

“Any time you’re plus-four in the turnover margin, it’s a good thing,” Whittingham said. “You’re not going to lose, probably ever.”

Utah turned in a strong second-half performance, outscoring the Beavers 21-3 over the final 30 minutes, including some key stops in the red-zone that resulted in either turnovers or field goals, as it emerged victorious on a sunny afternoon. 

“It was just guts. We’ve worked so hard,” said safety R.J. Hubert, who also had an interception. “We went through the wringer in spring ball and fall camp. We found our toughness.

“Once you get into the red zone, it’s like, ‘Alright, they’re close and they could get points out of this, but let’s minimize the amount of points they get.’”

The win revealed some things that the Utes will try to shore up moving forward, which is why Whittingham — who knows that more challenges loom on the horizon — didn’t always have a sunny disposition Saturday.  

“I’m pleased with the way that our guys responded in the second half. We didn’t play poorly in the first half but it wasn’t our best football,” Whittingham said.

“Way too soft in the run game in the first half. We buckled down and played much better run defense in the second half.”

Quarterback Cam Rising completed 19 of 25 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns and led the Utes in rushing with 73 yards on seven carries and a touchdown, while wide receiver Devaughn Vele caught a team-high seven passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. 

“The offense did a great job taking care of the ball,” Whittingham said. “Cam made a bunch of timely plays.”

This sets up a big showdown next week at the Rose Bowl against undefeated UCLA, which beat No. 15 — and previously undefeated — Washington 40-32 Friday night.

“Big test next week. The Bruins are playing outstanding. We’ve got to go down there,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got our hands full there. It’s another barometer to see where we’re at.”

The following week, the Utes host No. 6 USC in a highly anticipated matchup. 

Last week in Corvallis, the Beavers (3-2, 0-2) pushed the Trojans to the edge before dropping a 17-14 decision. 

Saturday, OSU wasn’t nearly as good defensively against the Kuithe-less Ute offense, and while Utah’s defense struggled at times with Oregon State’s rushing attack, the Utes can thank a certain All-Pac-12 sophomore cornerback for their strong start. 

Phillips had two interceptions in the first quarter, including a 38-yard pick six with 7:21 left in the period.

On the second play from scrimmage, Phillips stepped in front of a Chance Nolan pass intended for Tre’Shawn Harrison and set up Utah’s first touchdown — a beautiful, diving 19-yard reception by Jaylen Dixon from Rising. 

Phillips struck again by intercepting Nolan and streaking down the sideline for a TD to make it 14-7, giving the Utes a lead they would not relinquish.

Early in the second quarter, on 3rd and 2, Rising bolted out of the pocket, ran down the sideline and dove into the end zone for the score, propelling Utah to a 21-7 advantage. 

“A lot of people don’t look at me as a runner,” Rising said. “Every chance I get, I like to take advantage of it.”

The Utes led 21-13 at intermission. 

In the second half, the Utes locked in both offensively and defensively.

“Turnovers and consistency on the defensive side of the ball,” Phillips said about what was different in the third and fourth quarters.

“Even the offense’s approach and consistency after halftime was big — us just staying together and realizing that this is the game to really force some things and make plays. We did that and capitalized on that.”

Along the way, the Utes avenged last year’s 42-34 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis. 

“It was good. We talked about it,” Rising said. “It was kind of the same mentality as the San Diego State game.

“We had to make sure that we were doing everything throughout the week to prepare for this game.”

Oregon State freshman quarterback Ben Gulbranson replaced Nolan early in the second quarter after Nolan was knocked out of the game due to a neck strain. 

Gulbranson completed 12 of 21 passes for 177 yards and two interceptions. 

Utah visits UCLA next Saturday (1:30 p.m., MDT, Fox or FS1).

EXTRA POINTS: Senior linebacker Mohamoud Diabate returned to the field after suffering an injury and missing the past two games … Diabate finished with six tackles and four tackles for loss … With the win, Utah tied the all-time series with Oregon State (12-12-1) … The Utes are now 66-22 when ranked in the Associated Press poll under Whittingham.