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Utah and Colorado limp into regular-season finale

What once could have been a hyped-up battle between the two Rocky Mountain schools has turned into a struggle to cross the finish line.

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Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) is sacked by Oregon in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Oregon won 35-6.

Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) is sacked by Oregon in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Oregon won 35-6.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On Oct. 22, it looked like the Utah vs. Colorado game could be a marquee affair.

The Buffaloes, coached by Deion Sanders, were the talk of the college football world after a 3-0 start, including a season-opening win at national championship runner-up TCU. Even though Colorado cooled off to a 4-3 record, the Buffaloes were still much-watch TV, and only lost one of those three games (42-6 to Oregon) by more than one score.

Utah, meanwhile, was coming off the peak of its season, sitting at 6-1 after a thrilling victory at USC on a Cole Becker field goal as time expired.

Fast-forward a month, and things have shifted dramatically.

Colorado trudges into Salt Lake City on Saturday (1 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) having lost its last five games. Prior to last Friday’s game, the Buffaloes were still keeping it relatively close in losses to Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona, but the last loss broke the camel’s back. Colorado suffered a 56-14 beatdown by a lower-tier Pac-12 team, Washington State.

Star quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who was generating Heisman buzz after the first month of the season, has been running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Deion Sanders, never one to mince words, said two weeks ago that “the big picture, you get get new lineman. That’s the picture and I’ma paint it perfectly.”

Colorado’s offensive line has allowed 54 sacks this season, the most in all of Division I football. In the blowout loss to Washington State, Sanders was injured in the second quarter on a sack that was caused by an errant snap.

“(Shedeur) had some numbness in his hand and couldn’t really grip the ball,” Deion Sanders said, per The Clarion-Ledger. “But then that second hit he just got rolled up on. We decided not to send him back out.”

Even with the offensive line issues, Sanders has been one of the best quarterbacks in college football from a numbers standpoint, throwing for 3,230 yards this season, which ranks No. 10 in college football.

Utah-Colorado TV

Utes on the air

Utah (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12)
vs. Colorado (4-7, 1-7 Pac-12)
Saturday, 1 p.m. MST
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Colorado’s defense is its Achilles’ heel, allowing 35.9 points per game, No. 123 in Division I football.

Flashback to Oct. 22, and Utah was riding high off the USC win, with “College GameDay” in town for the big matchup against Oregon.

Utah has dealt with injuries all season, but found a way to just keep winning in spite of it all. After a 35-6 loss to Oregon, one of the more crushing home defeats in recent years, the Utes rebounded by beating Arizona State 55-3, but lost two straight games to Washington and Arizona. The wheels came off offensively in the second half of the Huskies loss after a great first half, and then the bottom seemingly fell out on the team in a 42-18 loss at Arizona on Saturday when the Wildcats raced out to a 28-0 first-quarter lead.

Utah’s offensive line is certainly not as bad as Colorado’s, but hasn’t been a strong point as of late, quarterback Bryson Barnes has had six straight quarters of ineffectiveness, and Utah’s vaunted defense has cracked.

Defensive end Jonah Elliss, linebacker Karene Reid and safety Cole Bishop were all out for Utah’s loss at Arizona. Elliss is out for the season, Reid is “banged up, maybe (play in) a bowl game, and Bishop is “hopefully able to play next week,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said postgame.

Several players, including Ja’Quinden Jackson and Sione Vaki, are dealing with injuries as well, but are trying to play through it.

Add in season-ending injuries to quarterback Cam Rising, tight end Brant Kuithe, tight end Thomas Yassmin, running back Chris Curry, running back Micah Bernard, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, linebacker Lander Barton, and defensive end Logan Fano, and it looked like on Saturday that the injuries finally caught up to Utah.

What once could have been a hyped-up battle between the two Rocky Mountain schools has turned into a struggle to cross the finish line.

At 4-7, Colorado cannot reach bowl eligibility, and at 7-4, Utah will not be in the Pac-12 championship game for the first time since 2020.

All that’s left next Saturday is playing for pride.

Utah will try and send its seniors out the right way in their last home game, and potentially try to make its way into one of the top three non-New Year’s Six Pac-12 bowl games instead of finishing the season in the Sun Bowl in El Paso.

“As an athlete, I never needed a carrot in front of me to play hard and play my best,” Whittingham said. “And I don’t think our guys quit and I don’t think they were unmotivated, but just there could be, some of that could have crept in, I guess we wouldn’t rule it out. But we played in the championship, what, four years in a row now (not counting the 2020 COVID year), and maybe psychologically, somewhere in the back of their mind that that was a factor. But I didn’t sense that.”