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During a break in the postgame news conference Saturday night, Utah linebacker Gionni Paul pulled a microphone closer to him and broke into a brief Lionel Richie song: "... Is it me you're looking for?"
Paul was everywhere in a 34-23 defeat of Washington, and the Utes needed every bit of his playmaking performance in the rain at Husky Stadium. With an interception leading to an easy touchdown for the offense and an interception that he returned for a score of his own, Paul delivered the biggest highlights of a victory that kept the Utes in control of the Pac-12 South race and extended all kinds of possibilities for this season.
"We're still sitting right where we want to be," said Ute quarterback Travis Wilson.
The offense finally did its part in the second half, delivering a 60-yard drive for a touchdown and an eight-point lead with 3:27 remaining. Until then, those offensive players could only thank their defensive friends for keeping Utah ahead in this game. And there was more to come. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu's second fumble recovery of the game led to Andy Phillips' clinching field goal, and the Utes could celebrate another critical win.
"Four and a score." That's the Utah defense's mantra of havoc, with the ambitious goal of forcing four turnovers and turning one of them into a score. When that happens, as it did against the Huskies, "You're not going to lose many football games," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.
"Playmaker." That's the word the Ute coaches and coaches have used to describe Paul, ever since he joined them as a transfer from Miami. Saturday's takeaways brought Paul's two-season totals to seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries in 17 games. He notched one of each in his first game as a Ute last year at Michigan and has just kept delivering.
After Tuesday's practice, Ute defensive coordinator John Pease grimaced good-naturedly when asked about the absence of takeaways in the previous two games. "They tend to come in bunches," he said. "I think you've got to have faith in what you're doing, which we do."
Paul's interception and 27-yard return to the Husky 8 led to a score, then Paul personally took care of the next TD with a 54-yard return of a fumble forced by Jared Norris to give Utah a 21-6 lead.
Film study is the story behind that interception, as Paul discovered that a certain formation usually resulted in a slant pass, and he promised himself, "I'm gonna get 'em." He tricked freshman quarterback Jake Browning by jumping the route and making the play.
Paul gave Norris full credit for the scoop-and-score play, noting how their bond makes them eager to take advantage of one another's forced fumbles. In the third quarter, with Utah's leading down to 24-20, Paul responded to Washington's fumble recovery with one of his two sacks, knocking the Huskies out of field-goal range.
The Utes finished with five sacks to go with the four takeaways in a highly disruptive showing that delighted their defensive coordinator. The 72-year-old Pease, who spent some of his best years in the business as a Washington assistant, loved his return to Husky Stadium.
Pease recently told an old story about his UW boss, the legendary Don James, who once explained his demands of the defense's performance during a Rose Bowl season: "We have good players. We have some good coaches. We should play well."
It should be said that the Utes caught some breaks via Washington's penalties, but they deserved this victory - based on what Whittingham labeled "a lot of toughness, a lot of grit, a lot of determination."
And just enough of Gionni Paul.