Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah won more than its first Pac-12 game Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The 27-8 victory over Oregon State also included a triumph in the turnover battle.
The Utes intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble en route to a 4-1 advantage in takeaways. A week earlier, however, they were on the short end of a 4-0 turnover margin in a 34-10 loss to California.
"If we can possess the football we've got a chance to win," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's been the storyline of the season."
The ups and downs are reflected in Utah's 3-0 non-conference record and 1-4 Pac-12 mark. Getting over the .500 mark overall though, will require consistency. The Utes visit Arizona on Saturday.
"Hopefully we'll put back-to-back games together," Whittingham said. "We'll find out."
Quarterback Jon Hays noted that the Utes are just trying to be smart with the football. He credits offensive coordinator Norm Chow for helping them bounce back this week.
"We've just got to keep progressing. We've got to go out and keep the turnovers to a minimum," Hays said before praising the defense. "They're going to keep us in any game with any team in the nation."
Both aspects are part of a blueprint Whittingham envisions for success down the stretch. The Utes, he detailed, need to play great defense, play very good special teams, take care of the football on offense and score in the red zone.
All phases contributed in the win over the Beavers.
"I think part of the frustration on our side is that we know we are capable of coming out and playing like this. But it's just words when you don't come out and perform," said wide receiver DeVonte Christopher. " So next week we've just got to come out and do the same thing and that just starts in practice —day-by-day-by-day."
Whittingham noted that a point of emphasis last week was playing with "passion and energy" throughout the entire football game.
"I think our guys did a good job of that," he said after the big emotional swing from the lopsided loss at Cal.
Besides issuing the challenge to step things up, the coaching staff also lightened the load on Hays.
"We didn't want to put too much on his plate and that was the plan going in," Whittingham said. "We scaled things back from what we've done the last couple of weeks and gave him fewer things to think about — fewer reads to make and I think it paid off."
Hays completed 6-of-14 passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns. The bulk of the offensive assignments went to running back John White. He carried the ball 35 times for 205 yards and a touchdown.
Despite the work load, White insists it was a team effort.
"I'm not going to put it all on me because everybody played hard," he said while noting the game plan. "We wanted to run the ball. So we did."
The effectiveness, thereof, allowed Utah to put 24 points on the board in the first half — 10 more than the Utes had scored in any of their previous Pac-12 outings after four quarters.
"We haven't put many points on the board but it's a new beginning," White said. "We're going to come every week and put points on the board."
Whittingham, however, doesn't expect his team to score 40-50 points per game. It's not who they are, he added.
Utah's primary strength this season has been on defense. The Utes held Oregon State to 32 yards rushing on 26 carries. They recorded six sacks. Tevita Finau led the way with three.
Chaz Walker topped the team with 11 tackles. Ryan Lacy, Matt Martinez and Mo Lee had interceptions, while Trevor Reilly had a fumble recovery.
"I feel like our defense is getting more and more confident each game," said defensive lineman Dave Kruger.
The combination of getting takeaways and limiting giveaways allowed the Utes to snap a two-game skid at home and pick up what had been an elusive first Pac-12 victory.
Christopher acknowledged it felt good to finally get that off their back.
"We're working and just trying to get to our bowl game," he said while expressing hope that the Utes can stay on path and just keep winning. "We're doing some good things right now."
Safety Brian Blechen noted that there was a feeling in the air this past week that everyone was focused and sick of losing.
The Utes did something about it, doing so without outside distractions..
"We do a pretty good job of circling the wagons here," Whittingham said. "And just kind of blocking everything out and not letting anything really be a factor for us externally."
Utes on the air
Utah (4-4, 1-4) at Arizona (2-6, 1-5)
Saturday, 5 p.m.
Radio: 700AMHeady goes here
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