BOULDER, Colo. — What began on an ice-cold Saturday morning as a first-half defensive slugfest between Utah and No. 21 Colorado, punctuated by big kick returns and turnovers by both teams, turned into an offensive explosion in the second half by the Utes on the frozen tundra of Folsom Field.

In the end, Utah crushed the Buffaloes’ Pac-12 South title hopes.

The Utes rallied from a 21-10 third-quarter deficit, scored 28 unanswered points and recorded a convincing 38-21 upset victory. 

“This team hung in there and fought their way out of a tough spot. They never flinched and the offense got clicking. … That’s a good road win against a top-25 team.” — Kyle Whittingham

“This team hung in there and fought their way out of a tough spot,” said coach Kyle  Whittingham. “They never flinched and the offense got clicking. … That’s a good road win against a top-25 team.”

And, oh, by the way, handed Colorado its first loss of the season.

Utah scored two touchdowns and rolled up 175 yards of offense in the decisive third quarter and put the game away resoundingly in the fourth. 

“The coaches did a good job making adjustments,” said wide receiver Britain Covey, who amassed 208 all-purpose yards, including nine catches for 76 yards. “We hadn’t played a full game yet. We battled some adversity and played our first 60-minute game.”

“We came out with the mindset to dominate the second half,” said quarterback Jake Bentley.

Utah improved to 2-2, while Colorado fell to 4-1. 

This game was billed as Utah’s stout run defense against Colorado’s high-powered rushing offense

Entering the contest, the Buffs were averaging 245.5 yards rushing per game, No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 10 in the nation.

The Utes were averaging 104.7 yards allowed per game, No. 11 nationally and No. 1 in the Pac-12. 

Pac-12 After Dawn, Rocky Mountain Style: Utah, Colorado battle in snowy, freezing mid-December conditions

As it turned out, Colorado couldn’t run the ball against Utah so the Buffaloes attacked, with some success, through the air. 

Colorado ran for just 110 yards and running back Jarek Broussard, who ran for 733 yards this season, was held to 80 yards on 14 carries. 

“It all starts with defending the run,” Whittingham said. 

Linebacker Nephi Sewell had a team-high 11 tackles to go along with an interception and a forced fumble. Freshman safety Nate Ritchie recorded five tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. 

“It was a milestone for us. But we could be so much better. We’re just scratching the surface.” — Nephi Sewell

“It was a milestone for us,” Sewell said of Utah’s defensive performance. “But we could be so much better. We’re just scratching the surface.”

Meanwhile, Covey gave the Utes a huge lift with returns on special teams, giving Utah’s offense favorable field position, while freshman running back Ty Jordan ran 17 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns. 

Bentley completed 20 of 32 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns, and also picked up a few big first downs on the ground.

“When Jake is confident, he’s amazing,” Covey said. “When he looks like Hercules, breaking tackles, it pumps us up.”

Utah controlled the clock with a possession time of 36:11 compared to Colorado’s 23:49. The Utes had 432 yards of total offense. 

Highlights, key plays and photos from Utah’s 38-21 win over No. 21 Colorado

On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer dumped off a pass to Brenden Rice, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who sprinted 61 yards down the sideline for a touchdown to give Colorado a 21-10 lead. 

From there, Utah’s defense put the clamps on the Buffaloes.

The Utes answered quickly when Jordan scored on an 18-yard run, set up by a 35-yard gain on the first play of the drive, which covered 75 yards. That made it 21-17 for CU.  

With 6:23 left in the third quarter, Utah jumped ahead on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that took 5:28 off the clock, capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bentley to Covey. That drive was highlighted by a spectacular 30-yard reception near the sideline by Bryan Thompson. 

Suddenly, the Utes were up 24-21. 

Utah retained the momentum a few plays later when Sewell picked off Noyer. 

On their ensuing drive, the Utes had fourth-and-goal at the CU 1-yard line but couldn’t get into the end zone late in the third quarter after a poor snap on a direct snap to Brant Kuithe. 

But Utah scored on its next drive when Jadon Redding booted a career-long 43-yard field goal with 9:19 remaining to make it 27-21. 

Colorado drove to the Ute 34 but on fourth-and-5, Mika Tafua batted down Noyer’s pass with 4:43 remaining.

One play later, Jordan took a handoff and raced 66 yards for a touchdown. After a two-point conversion, Utah was staked to a commanding 35-21 advantage. 

Redding added another field goal with 2:24 left. 

At 6:30 a.m., the fire alarm went off at Utah’s team hotel, giving everyone an early wakeup call.

“That definitely got everyone’s attention,” Whittingham said.

“It got us woken up,” Bentley said. “I applaud the guys for being ready to go.”

Utah running back Micah Bernard gestures after joining in a moment of silence with teammates before taking on Colorado in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Boulder, Colo. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

The game began auspiciously for Utah as Covey returned the opening kickoff 40 yards. Six plays later, Bentley threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Solomon Enis to put the Utes up 7-0 with 12:03  left in the first quarter.

The two teams traded punts as they struggled to get something going offensively.

Utah’s defense was led by Ritchie, who recorded an early sack and recovered a fumble forced by Maxs Tupai late in the first quarter. 

But the Ute offense couldn’t capitalize.

Colorado tied the score early in the second quarter when Noyer threw a 21-yard touchdown strike to Maurice Bell, capping an 11-play, 90-yard drive. 

Later in the period, CU’s Mekhi Blackmon intercepted Bentley, recording his first career pick. Bentley’s arm was hit as he released the ball. 

Later, Colorado took its first lead when Rice fielded a punt and sprinted 81 yards through the Utes’ special teams for a touchdown. 

With 1:30 left in the half, the Buffaloes went ahead, 14-7. 

But Utah managed to score again before the end of the half. 

A fumble by Broussard in Buffalo territory was recovered by cornerback JaTravis Broughton. The fumble was forced by Sewell. 

Coming into the game, Colorado had lost one fumble in four games. Utah was able to force and recover two fumbles in the first half. 

That gave the ball back to the Utah offense, which took advantage of the turnover with Redding converting a 42-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime.

“That gave us some good momentum,” Whittingham said.

And that helped propel Utah’s big second half. 

EXTRA POINTS: Colorado senior linebacker Nate Landman suffered a non-contact injury in the second quarter. … Utah had zero penalties. … The Utes converted 6 of 15 on third downs while the Buffaloes were 8 of 16.