A little more than a month ago, it appeared that Utah’s hopes of repeating as Pac-12 champions might be fleeting fast.
The Utes lost 42-32 at UCLA on Oct. 8 — their first conference loss. They surrendered 511 yards to quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet.
But here we are in mid-November, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, and Utah, No. 13 in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings, finds itself in position to win another title.
Coming off of Saturday’s 42-7 demolition of Stanford, the Utes are 8-2 overall and 6-1 in league play, just ½ game behind first-place USC (9-1, 7-1). The Utes handed the No. 8 Trojans their only loss of the season on Oct. 15 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Next up is a much-anticipated showdown at No. 6 Oregon (8-2, 6-1), which is tied with Utah in the league standings. The Utes visit the Ducks Saturday (8:30 p.m., MST, ESPN).
Oregon is coming off a 37-34 home loss to No. 25 Washington (8-2, 5-2). The Ducks suffered their first Pac-12 loss and they were eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration. Oregon saw its 23-game home winning streak snapped, too.
Later that night, No. 12 UCLA (8-2, 5-2) got beat at home 34-28 by Arizona.
While things could get even crazier the next two weeks, particularly with USC and UCLA squaring off this weekend, Utah controls its own destiny in terms of reaching the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas on Dec. 2.
The Utes need to beat Oregon and then defeat Colorado in the regular-season finale in Boulder on Nov. 26 and they’re in.
Right now, five teams are still in contention — Utah, Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington. And it’s not inconceivable that there could be a five-way tie for first place, if all of those teams finish conference play at 7-2.
Yes, there’s plenty on the line when the Utes invade Autzen Stadium.
But as coach Kyle Whittingham pointed out late Saturday night after the win over the Cardinal, the mindset has remained the same for quite a while.
“Everything’s at stake every week,” he said. “We’ve got our backs to the wall and we’ve been in pressure games ever since we got beat by the Bruins. Our guys have responded … Arizona won so we’re in pretty good shape right now. But it doesn’t matter. We gotta win. No matter what happens, we gotta win. We gotta win. So Oregon’s an excellent football team. We’ll get on them right away and start studying and have a good plan for them.”
There will be a shakeup affecting Pac-12 teams in the CFP rankings when they are released Tuesday.
On Sunday, the Associated Press had Utah jumping three spots to No. 10. Oregon fell six spots from No. 6 to No. 12; Washington leaped from No. 24 to No. 15; UCLA plummeted from No. 9 to No. 16. USC edged up one spot to No. 7; and Oregon State landed at No. 25.
While the Bruins fell to one of the teams in the bottom-half of the Pac-12 standings, the Utes overcame an early 7-0 deficit against Stanford, which sits in last place.
Quarterback Cam Rising, playing in what was likely his final game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, completed 20 of 33 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Asked if this was his last game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Rising replied, “I believe so, yes.”
“That’s the plan as of now,” Whittingham said about Rising’s future. “But we’re not focused on that right now. We’re focused on this next game.”
Others that likely played in their final home game for Utah includes running back Tavion Thomas, who rushed 22 times for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns, more than Stanford’s offense gained altogether (177).
Senior tight end Dalton Kincaid caught four passes for 35 yards. Kincaid suffered an injury at Washington State on Oct. 27 and did not play the next week against Arizona.
Whittingham said Kincaid was “good enough to play. The medical staff completely cleared him. We wanted to get him back in the flow. It wasn’t playing just to let him have some reps in his last game. He wanted to play. He contributed. Not as usual, but I think you’ll see him take a big step forward next week and become more of a factor, much like he’s been all season long with the exception of these last few weeks.”
In all, 17 players were recognized on Senior Night Saturday, including several underclassmen.
Whittingham said those underclassmen could return to the program under certain circumstances.
“Those guys that you saw getting honored, that’s most likely their plan. There could be some changes,” he said. “Nothing is set in stone with the guys that still have eligibility. We had three or four or five guys last year that went through the recognition process and then ended up coming back.
“Our advice to those guys was, if you think there’s a good chance you’ll be moving on, let’s recognize you just in case. If not, what harm is done? If you want to come back, we’ll welcome you back.”
Whittingham loved how his team performed in the home finale.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” he said. “It’s great to send the seniors and the guys that are going to be coming out, that still have eligibility but are going to move on, out the right way. That was a big emphasis this week and our guys took it to heart.”
Utah’s defense not only held the Cardinal to less than 200 yards of total offense, but it also sacked quarterback Tanner McKee seven times and allowed only nine first downs and 22 rushing yards.
“Our defense played outstanding. We’ve had some weeks where we weren’t quite as good. Those were really good offenses that we played,” Whittingham said. “It’s not like you can just stymie everybody every single week. When you look at our body of work as a whole defensively, it’s very good. We’re No. 1 in the league. We’ve been 1, 2, or 3 in the league for years and years.
“That speaks to the hard work and dedication of our coaching staff, their recruiting efforts and getting the right guys in here to develop. That’s been a — I don’t want to say tradition — but something that we’ve had a very consistent performance on the defensive side of the ball.”
Certainly, the Ute defense will get a stern test next Saturday against the explosive Duck offense, led by quarterback Bo Nix, who suffered an injury against Washington.
Utah senior linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, a Florida transfer, enjoyed playing at Rice-Eccles Stadium this season.
“It was a great experience. Coming here, I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “But I’ve definitely enjoyed every moment in that stadium — the fans and the atmosphere have definitely been special. It’s been a fun ride with these guys and I look forward to finishing it these next three weeks.”
And this final stretch begins next Saturday at Oregon with so much — a Pac-12 championship — at stake.