Utah Utes football: With their third straight victory, Utes become bowl eligible
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A little snow provided a bit of a chill, but failed to cool down the Utah Utes. They prevailed for the third straight game Saturday night with a 31-6 victory over UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Besides improving to 6-4 overall and 3-4 in Pac-12 play, the Utes are now bowl eligible for the ninth consecutive season.
"I'm very proud of our guys and the way they've responded the last three weeks," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said while noting the ups and downs earlier in the season. "We seem to be developing a rhythm as a football team."
The Utes, he continued, are more in-sync.
In their latest triumph, contributions were plentiful. Running back John White IV had another stellar outing with 167 yards rushing and three touchdowns (two on the ground). The Utes are 6-0 this season when he eclipses 100 yards.
"We got off the ball," White said. "Our offensive line wanted it more than (UCLA's) defensive line."
Quarterback Jon Hays was efficient as the Utes extended their run of games without an interception or fumble on offense to three games. Utah is 13-of-14 in the red zone during that span.
"We're doing things the right way offensively," Whittingham said. "We're not turning the ball over, very few penalties, we're physical at the line of scrimmage running the football and that's who were are."
Utah's defense held UCLA to a season-low in points. Safety Brian Blechen led the Utes with eight tackles and cornerback Conroy Black picked off two passes.
"The defense was outstanding and they've been outstanding the entire season," Whittingham said. "They're at the top or near the top of most defensive statistical categories for a reason."
The Utes' lone miscue against the Bruins came on special teams late in the first quarter. Griff McNabb fumbled a punt return and Isaiah Bowens recovered for UCLA on the Utah 17. The Bruins cashed in less than two minutes later when Tyler Gonzalez made a 30-yard field goal.
Trailing 3-0, Utah didn't respond until 5:34 remained in the second quarter. That's when White put the Utes ahead with a 1-yard touchdown run. Coleman Petersen added the first of four PATs in the game to make it 7-3.
Utah held an even bigger lead later in the first half — for a few minutes, anyhow.
With 3:25 left in the quarter, Ryan Lacy scooped up an apparent fumble by UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and returned it 26 yards to the end zone. A video review, however, took the points off the board when it was ruled that Franklin's elbow had touched the ground before he lost the ball.
UCLA wound up driving into Utah territory, but failed to score when a 47-yard kick by Gonzalez was wide right as the half concluded.
Things continued to go the Utes' way in the third quarter. They opened the third period with a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive that took 5:29 off the clock. The lengthy drive culminated with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Jon Hays to White.
Utah's 14-3 lead held firm until White added a 22-yard TD run just over six minutes later.
The Utes' 21-3 advantage swelled in the fourth quarter when the defense got offensive. Black returned an interception 67 yards for a touchdown as the rout continued. Petersen later capped off all scoring in the contest with a 38-yard field goal.
"I would like to congratulate Utah on a well-played game. They outplayed us today," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. "Ultimately, turnovers cost us the game and were the story of the tape. Turnovers and the inability to get the right play cost us the game tonight."
The loss may cost the Bruins (5-5, 4-3) the Pac-12 South title. They entered the game in a tie for first with Arizona State and USC.
Utah closes out the regular season with games at Washington State on Saturday and at home against Colorado the following Friday.
"It feels great to be bowl eligible. We're finally playing like the team we thought we would be," Black said. "Now, we just want to finish the season how we want to."
Streak is the word.
"We're really studying and getting into our playbooks and it's showing up on the field," Blechen said. "... It feels great getting that sixth win. The one thing we talked about was getting on a win streak."
It's now a reality following consecutive victories over Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA. While acknowledging bowl eligibility, Whittingham is hopeful the roll continues.
"We're 6-4 with two to go, so the objective is to send our seniors out on a positive note and we're headed in that direction," he said. "We can't change anything we're doing. We have to keep working hard."
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