When asked about his team's identity, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham reeled off a list of things. He described this year's Utes as being a lot like last season's undefeated Sugar Bowl championship squad: blue collar, not real flashy, a team that grinds it out and gets it done by playing hard with great effort.
"There are a lot of similarities between this year's team and last year's team," Whittingham said.
One of the more notable traits is close games.
Over the past two seasons, Utah has seven victories by seven points or less.
"It's always great to win. You can never complain about a win," said center Zane Taylor. "But it definitely is kind of unnerving coming away with so many close victories. It's definitely been putting a lot of stress on me, even my wife."
Although just two of the extremely tight finishes have come this season — Colorado State (24-17) and Air Force (23-16 in overtime) — there were a couple of other close calls along the way.
Just last week, the Utes trailed Wyoming with less than eight minutes left to play before rallying for a 22-10 victory. In a 24-14 win at San Jose State earlier in the season, they were engaged in a seven-point game until kicking a field goal with 13 seconds to go.
Cornerback R.J. Stanford acknowledges it's been a bit nerve-racking.
"But we have confidence that we're going to get the job done," he said. "That we are going to go out there and compete every down, every play and come out with the win."
And that, Stanford noted, is the bottom line.
"We can't complain about a win," he added. "But it's close, way closer than I'd like it to be, but I'll take it."
The run of success has the Utes off to a 7-1 start overall, including a 4-0 mark in Mountain West Conference play. They're 14th in the Bowl Championship Series standings, No. 16 in the coaches poll and No. 17 in the Associated Press rankings.
"We still haven't had a really big, solid win that you can really be happy about," Taylor said. "But the good thing is with a lot of the close games, we've had lots of learning opportunities. So we've been improving each week."
Progress is most evident in the fourth quarter, where the Utes have outscored the opposition by a margin of 63-20. The numbers include a decisive 13-0 advantage over Wyoming last weekend.
Whittingham credits strength coach Doug Elisaia for his team's superior conditioning and success late in games.
Strong finishes, though, are only part of the big picture the Utes are seeking.
"You hope for a breakout. Hopefully, we'll put it all together. I don't believe we have played our best game yet as a football team. I don't believe we've played a game where we've played well in all three phases for all four quarters," Whittingham said. "That's something you strive for every week. That's the objective, to try to play that complete game.
"I don't think we've done that yet to our full capability," he continued. "But as long as we're getting the W's, I mean, that is the bottom line."
The Utes clinched their seventh consecutive winning season with last week's triumph.
"Never apologize for a win and never discount or discredit a win because that's what it's all about — getting a win," Whittingham said. "These guys have found a way to do that."
Utes on the air
New Mexico (0-8, 0-4 MWC) at No. 17 Utah (7-1, 4-0)
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: The mtn.
Radio: 700 AM
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