There was plenty to celebrate in Utah’s 34-14 win over Cal on Saturday, including impressive runs from Sione Vaki, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Bryson Barnes.

In general, the Utes’ offense looked far better than it did against Oregon State and UCLA. Thirty-four points is the most the team has scored in a game all season.

The defense did what the defense almost always does, which is to say that it made life difficult for the Bears. But it also committed some costly penalties, which could affect the Utes’ ability to win next week if that persists.

Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s game:

The run game came to life

Utah’s run game returned to its typical form on Saturday, accounting for nearly three times as many yards as the passing attack.

  • Surprisingly, safety Sione Vaki put in the strongest offensive performance of the day. He had 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard score in the fourth quarter. Vaki’s 158 yards represents the most rush yards by a defensive back in Pac-12 history, according to the Pac-12 Network’s broadcast.
  • Quarterback-turned-running-back Ja’Quinden Jackson had 94 yards and one touchdown of his own.
  • Quarterback Bryson Barnes, who started for the Utes amid Cam Rising’s continued absence, used his legs quite a bit as well. He had 50 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.

These strong rushing performances helped the Utes get ahead in the second quarter and then stay ahead, despite the team’s ongoing struggles to develop a consistent passing game.

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The defense dominated ... and then suffered a costly blow

Not to be outdone, Utah’s usually dominant defense looked, well, dominant for more than half of the game.

A major highlight came midway through the third quarter, when Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss sacked Cal quarterback Fernando Mendoza, who lost the ball.

The Utes recovered it less than 20 yards from the end zone and needed just a few plays to score.

Elliss was in on another sack later in the game and had 2.5 tackles for loss. He now has 7.5 sacks on the season, which is the most in the Pac-12 Conference as of Saturday afternoon.

Van Fillinger also had a big day for the Utes, recording two sacks and two tackles for loss.

The big cloud over the defense’s day was safety Cole Bishop’s disqualification in the fourth quarter due to targeting. Because of the penalty, Bishop will have to miss the first half of Utah’s next game, which is on Oct. 21 against USC, assuming the call does not get overturned when the Utes formally appeal it.

Utah fans booed the refs’ decision for the final eight minutes of the game.

The Utes still have room to grow

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Saturday’s game was a big step in the right direction for the Utes, who looked out of sorts for much of September.

But it’s still not clear if they’ll be able to hang with No. 10 USC next week, especially if the Utes don’t have Bishop for the first half.

To beat the Trojans, the Utes will need to play even better than they did against the Bears by avoiding costly defensive penalties and mixing more passes into their offensive plans.

It would also help, of course, to have Rising back from his knee injury, but Barnes showed Saturday that he can add value to the offense with his scrambling skills.

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