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Seattle • Addressing the press on Saturday night, Kyle Whittingham strained to see the stat sheet without his glasses.
Utah's head coach hadn't yet seen his 155 passing yards, that Washington had run more plays, or that the Huskies had converted seven third down opportunities. But he had seen "a lot of toughness and resiliency" in a 34-23 win at Husky Stadium.
Whittingham's eyes didn't deceive him. Utah's forte this year has been pulling away.
The No. 10-ranked Utes are 8-1, but in the fourth quarter, they're unbeaten. While many fans have groused understandably so about a passing game that ranks second to last in production, Utah has shown itself as a team built to win at the end of games.
It happened against Arizona State, when the Utes went on a 20-point run. It happened against Oregon State, when the Utes broke through a mid-game malaise and topped the Beavers with a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
The Washington game was the latest in Utah's string of fourth quarter success stories: The Utes put together a pair of scoring drives to boost their lead by 10 points at the game's finish, and ate up nine-and-a-half minutes of clock to limit Washington's chances at a comeback. Utah's 122 yards in the last 15 minutes was its best offensive quarter of the night.
If the measure of toughness is fourth-quarter performance, Utah is as tough as they come with a standout running game and a fearsome defense that can rush the passer Whittingham said it himself after the game. Those two qualities have helped the Utes outscore opponents by 40 points in the fourth quarter alone this season. The fourth quarter is also Utah's best scoring quarter, with 91 total points in the final frame this year.
Running back Devontae Booker stuck out on Saturday, getting 15 carries on Utah's final three drives, all in the fourth quarter.
"He did a great job," Whittingham said. "Particularly down the stretch. He'll take the ball however many times you want to feed him."
But Utah's defense also consistently answers the call to finish the game.
On Saturday night, Kylie Fitts got a strip and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu recovered the fumble with less than three minutes left to seal the result. The turnover turned into a scoring drive that gave the Utes a two-score lead, ensuring the first win ever against the Huskies.
This, too, is not unusual: The defense recovered a fumble and notched a pick against Arizona State. In a six-point win over Cal, Dominique Hatfield got Utah's fifth interception against Jared Goff as the Golden Bears couldn't score in the fourth quarter. Clutch turnovers against Michigan (which was a pick-six) and Utah State sealed Utah's first two wins going back to the beginning of the season.
In all, the Ute defense has forced eight turnovers in the fourth quarter spanning six games more than a third of its turnover production in a fourth of its game time.
The surprise was when Utah wasn't getting takeaways late in a loss to USC and an unimpressive win over the Beavers. Linebacker Gionni Paul said it comes down to desire the Utes have to be active in stripping and making plays in coverage.
"It's just the extra effort," Paul said. "I believe we corrected that mistake."
While the Utes haven't been the passing offense they hoped for this year, to dwell on it might be under-appreciating the team's strengths. When it comes down to the final quarter, the Utes never lose ground.
It's a factor you can admire without a stat sheet.
Utah's fourth-quarter advantage
• The Utes are outscoring opponents 91-51 this season in the fourth quarter.
• Eight of Utah's 23 takeaways have come in the quarter.
• Utah has not been outscored in the fourth quarter this year (tied four times).