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Utah Utes football: Team continues to progress as results turning positive

Published: Sunday, Nov. 13 2011 9:21 p.m. MST

Utah players celebrate as the University of Utah defeats UCLA Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to playing in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game, recent developments have elevated the Utah Utes to Lloyd Christmas status. They're in position to utter the same words that Jim Carrey's character did in "Dumb and Dumber."

As in: "So, you're telling me there's a chance."

Thanks to Utah's 31-6 win over UCLA and Arizona State's meltdown at Washington State later in the evening, the Utes are back in contention for the Pac-12 South's berth in the title game. With division leader USC unable to participate because of NCAA sanctions, ASU (6-4, 4-3) and UCLA (5-5, 4-3) are the frontrunners to face Oregon in the championship clash.

Utah (6-4, 3-4) can crash the party with help from the Bruins and Sun Devils.

Even with season-ending wins at Washington State Saturday and at home against Colorado the following Friday, the Utes need Arizona State to stumble twice down the stretch — losing to both Arizona and California at home — to avoid losing a tiebreaker. The Sun Devils own a head-to-head victory over the Utes, prevailing 35-14 in Salt Lake City on Nov. 8.

As for UCLA, the Utes hold the Pac-12's initial two-team tiebreaker (head-to-head) over the Bruins. To get to that point, however, UCLA needs to lose to either Colorado at home or USC on the road. Falling to both, coupled with ASU going 0-2, would send Utah to the title game.

A multiple-team tiebreaker involving ASU and UCLA, however, isn't favorable for the Utes.

There are plenty of variables, obviously.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted as such following Saturday's win over UCLA. Considering his team's 0-4 start in conference play, however, he acknowledged the victory over the Bruins was "certainly one of the most satisfying" triumphs of the season.

UCLA entered the game a tri-leaders (with ASU and USC) in the Pac-12 South.

"Who knows what's going to go the rest of the year," Whittingham said. "But I believe we got their best shot. They were ready to play."

The Bruins jumped out to an early 3-0 lead before the Utes responded with a 31-3 outburst the rest of the way to win their third consecutive game. They're on a roll since Whittingham met with the juniors and seniors following a 34-10 setback at California on Oct. 22.

"I wanted to get my hand on the pulse of the team," Whittingham said. "That was the main reason for the meeting."

Although he declined to say it was magic or anything like it, the Utes have played with more "emotion and passion" since the flat showing against Cal.

Utah's offense hasn't had a turnover since.

"We're starting to find out who we are," Whittingham said. "We're starting to find out what Jon Hays does best, and that's a credit to the coaching staff making those adjustments and getting the ship righted, I guess you could say."

Hays, he continued, is making good decisions at quarterback and taking care of the football — the No. 1 thing they've asked of the junior college transfer and replacement for injured starter Jordan Wynn.

The barometer for Utah's success is running back John White IV. The Utes are 6-0 when the junior rushes for more than 100 yards. He had 167 against UCLA.

"His progression has been solid all season long," Whittingham said. "He's been a mainstay for us."

The managed offense has complimented consistent play on defense and special teams.

Senior cornerback Conroy Black headlined the defense Saturday by intercepting UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince twice, taking one back 67 yards for a touchdown. The Utes stopped the Bruins on third-down situations 11 times.

On special teams, Coleman Petersen made four PATs and a 38-yard field goal. Punter Sean Sellwood had a 60-yard kick and pinned two inside the 20.

Whittingham credits all of the players for developing the rhythm as a football team. The win over UCLA added bowl eligibility to the beat.

Pac-12 road finale

UTAH (6-4 3-4) at Washington State (4-6, 3-4)

Saturday, 3 p.m.

TV: KJZZ

Radio: 700AM

Email: dirk@desnews.com. Twitter: @DirkFacer

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