‘We took that personal’: How Utah got revenge, almost pitched a shutout against San Diego State
Thanks in part to a 21-point second quarter, Utah cruised, and crushed the hapless Aztecs.
For the past calendar year, No. 14 Utah has felt somewhat sick to its stomach — kind of like a recurring case of Montezuma’s revenge — about last year’s 33-31 triple overtime loss to San Diego State.
It was a bitter setback that served as a turning point for a season that saw the Utes win their first Pac-12 championship and earn their first trip to the Rose Bowl.
Still, this week, Utah’s players and coaches said they had a bad taste in their mouths as they recalled that defeat, saying they had some unfinished business to take care of against SDSU.
And on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes exacted revenge — and then some — on the Aztecs with a resounding 35-7 victory.
“I think we were just (ticked) off about last year, the way it finished, coming up short,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “We really just wanted to send a message, especially we heard that they were talking about physicality all week and how they were going to out-physical us again and all that.
“We took that personal.”
But It took a while for the Utes to get going offensively.
Thanks in part to a 21-point second quarter, Utah (2-1) cruised, and crushed the hapless Aztecs (1-2).
Rising exhibited his moxie for the first time last season when he replaced starter Charlie Brewer in the second half against SDSU and led the Utes to a pair of touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
This time, Rising completed 18 of 30 passes for 224 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in about three quarters of action.
Running back Tavion Thomas rushed 16 times for 59 yards and a touchdown, while Micah Bernard had five carries for 44 yards.
Brant Kuithe caught five passes for 64 yards and a touchdown; Devaughn Vele had three receptions for 38 yards and a pair of TDs; Dalton Kincaid hauled in three passes for 35 yards; and Solomon Enis had three catches for 35 yards and a TD.
Meanwhile, SDSU entered the night averaging 275 rushing yards per game, and it was ranked No. 4 nationally in that category.
But Utah shut down the Aztecs’ run game, yielding just 113 yards, though most of those came in the second half when the game was already out of reach.
“Last year, they ran the ball a lot against us,” said safety Cole Bishop. “That was a big point of emphasis this week, just being physical and not letting them run the ball as much as they did. I think we did that pretty good.”
“The defense was solid from start to finish,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
SDSU played three different quarterbacks, as starter Braxton Burmeister went down with an injury. None of them was effective against the Ute defense. The Aztecs completed 7 of 21 passes for 60 yards.
“They lost their quarterback. We knocked him out of the game,” Whittingham said. “That put a damper on their throw game.”
The Aztecs averaged 3.1 yards per play and converted just 3 of 15 third down attempts.
“They did a great job all night just dominating up front,” Rising said of the Ute defense. “They kept giving us the ball back with good field position. It made our jobs that much easier.”
Utah did get some bad news, as running back Chris Curry suffered a season-ending injury in the third quarter.
The Ute offense sputtered in the first quarter with three punts and one turnover-on-downs.
“Slow start,” Whittingham said. “That was the biggest disappointment of the game.”
Utah didn’t get on the board until halfway through the second quarter. That’s when Rising engineered a seven-play, 77-yard drive capped by a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kuithe.
The Utes struck again on its ensuing possession — an 82-yard, nine-play drive that took 4:34 off the clock — highlighted by a 24-yard run by Bernard and a 13-yard touchdown pass from Rising to Solomon Enis.
That made it 14-0 for Utah.
But the Ute offense got the ball back quickly as SDSU’s Justus Tavai fumbled the kickoff and Utah’s Caine Savage pounced on the ball. Rising made the Aztecs pay for their miscue moments later when he connected with Vele on a 15-yard touchdown strike with 20 seconds left in the half.
And the Utes went into the locker room at halftime with a commanding 21-0 advantage.
“We just relaxed and started to play our brand of ball,” Rising said of the offense’s awakening.
Early in the third quarter, Utah linebacker Karene Reid intercepted quarterback Kyle Crum and returned it 14 yards as the Ute offense set up shop at the SDSU 30.
That pick “really was the dagger,” Whittingham said.
Four plays later, Thomas extended Utah’s lead to 28-0 with 11:31 left in the period on an 18-yard touchdown run.
On the Utes’ next possession, they scored easily again when Rising threw a 3-yard TD pass to Vele to make it 35-zip.
“Once we got going, and got momentum, then the floodgates kind of opened and we put the game away in the third quarter,” Whittingham said.
The Aztecs erased the shutout midway through the fourth quarter after a muffed punt by Malone Mataele at the Utah 27. SDSU ended up scoring on an 18-yard touchdown pass by Crum with 3:56 remaining.
That special teams turnover was “unfortunate to see,” Whittingham said.
But the coach liked what he saw from his team.
“Overall, a good win for our team,” Whittingham said.
Utah visits Arizona State next Saturday for its Pac-12 opener.
EXTRA POINTS: Announced attendance was 51,602 … Cornerback Clark Phillips III suffered an injury early in the third quarter … Over its last two games, Utah has outscored its opponents 59-0 in the second quarter … The Utes captured their 10th straight win at home … Saturday marked Utah’s 300th all-time win over Mountain West opponents … The Utes are now 29-4, and 20-0 at home, in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.