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Pasadena, Calif. • Kyle Whittingham was smiling as he stepped up to the podium. Smiling, but looking tired after the 52-45 victory his team had just secured over UCLA.
"Not our typical way of winning a football game," he said. "Phew, we don't find ourselves in many shootouts."
You don't say.
In six seasons in the Pac-12, the Utes have scored 50 or more points in conference play twice: once against Oregon last season, and then Saturday in the Rose Bowl against the Bruins. The higher the combined score, the worse the Utes often fare.
But the most recent win for No. 17 Utah (7-1, 4-1) shows that during an injury-plagued, drama-filled season, there is no set formula to victory for the program. A week after being engrossed in a sloppy, defensive struggle, Utah's offense led the way for its third straight win one that certainly exposed flaws, yet offered more evidence of an extraordinary resolve the coaching staff has continually referenced this year.
"We didn't have our heads down at any point in the game, not when they scored on us," quarterback Troy Williams said. "At the end of the day, it's about having fun. And that's what we did."
It certainly wasn't all fun for the Utes.
After a 14-0 start which gave the impression that Utah could cruise, the Bruins came back with strength. It was apparent how much the Utes missed starting safety Marcus Williams (whom Pro Football Focus had graded as the country's best free safety through 7 weeks) and middle linebacker Sunia Tauteoli, as UCLA passed over the top of the vaunted secondary, and tacklers peeled off of Bruin receivers and rushers.
A 21-0 run for UCLA made it appear that Utah was on the rocks. Tight end Nate Iese looked like an All-American running over corners and safeties on the way to 146 yards and two touchdowns receiving. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley looked similarly dominant on the Bruins defense, bowling over right tackle Sam Tevi for three sacks, five tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles.
Then the run game got going.
Players said later it wasn't as much a matter of personnel mismatches as much as unit execution. Pulling guards and tackles up the middle, the Utah offensive linemen were coordinated enough to open wide lanes for Joe Williams to run for more yards than any other FBS back this year (the previous mark of 286 yards was held by BYU's Jamaal Williams). The counter play and its variations put the Bruins defense on its back.
Traditionally, a strong run game has been a part of Utah's blueprint to winning, but it hasn't always been this year: The Utes didn't produce a 100-yard back until the sixth game of the season against Arizona. Since Williams has returned, he's run for 511 yards thanks much in part to a line that admitted it had started off the year without enough physicality, and which two weeks ago was strung up by 11 false starts in a single game.
"The O-line doesn't get a lot of recognition, but we don't need it," Tevi said. "As long as Joe is doing his part, and Troy's doing his part, we're happy as a unit."
There was still the issue of a leaky secondary: In the second half, Mike Fafaul threw touchdown passes of 50 and 75 yards, continuing a troubling trend of Utah's defense allowing big plays. Of the last 12 touchdown passes thrown on Utah, eight of them have been 24 yards or longer.
But while the defense has broken, it has also been opportunistic. Starting in place of Williams, Jordan Fogal accumulated five tackles, including one for a loss, and two picks of Fafaul. Similarly, cornerback Brian Allen who was burned several times in coverage also picked off Fafaul twice, including on a down immediately after Dominique Hatfield was carried off the field for injury.
"Not a lot of guys, but that's the nature of college football," Whittingham said.
Utah will have its work cut out for it Saturday, with the eyes of the nation tuning in for College GameDay, followed by a match-up with undefeated No. 4 Washington. The Huskies have seemingly grown up since falling to Utah last year at Husky Stadium: They have the top-ranked defense and offense in the conference, a Heisman contender at quarterback (26 touchdowns, 2 interceptions), and a defense leading the league in sacks (3.5 per game) and turnover margin (plus-14). Even though the Utes themselves lead the Pac-12 South Division with Colorado, they are 11-point underdogs.
But so far this year, when the Utes get down, they've come up with creative ways to win the past few weeks have seen late comebacks, shootouts and grind-out games in the rain.
Whittingham, for one, seemed excited to see what they'll come up with next.
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