Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It ended on a high note, a very high note.
Saturday’s 27-21 upset of fifth-ranked Stanford capped the first half of the season for the Utah Utes, lifting them to a 4-2 record — their best overall start since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. It also prevented them from enduring a third consecutive 0-3 start to conference play.
Then, there’s the whole first win at home over a top-5 team thing.
“It was a good win for us, a much-needed win. Our players have fought and competed all season long,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We were due to come out on the right end of one of those close ones. So, I'm very proud of the way the guys finished and hung in there start to finish as they have all year.”
After opening the season with wins over Utah State (30-26) and Weber State (70-7), the Utes dropped a 51-48 overtime decision at home to Oregon State. A 20-13 victory at BYU followed before Pac-12 play resumed with UCLA (a 34-27 setback) and the win over Stanford.
“I think we've done some good things this season. Obviously, we'd choose to be undefeated, if we had a perfect world. But we've competed every week,” Whittingham said. “I don't think we've had a poor performance. We haven't won every game, obviously, but I don't think we've had a game where we just flat-out didn't play well.”
And that, he added, has been encouraging.
“The competitive nature of this team is fun to be around — the way they compete and the way they care about what they're doing,” Whittingham said. “So, we're 4-2, and we've got the second half of the season coming up this week. We just need to try to keep things headed in the right direction.”
The first opportunity comes Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., against Arizona. It ushers in a season-ending stretch that includes four road games and just two home dates.
Moving forward, Whittingham said, the Utes are determined to accentuate the reasons for the win over Stanford — a great week of practice, focus, film study and everything else that went into the winning effort.
“We've got to be able to duplicate that as far as our preparation. This team, this year, has not had a problem preparing,” Whittingham said. “But some weeks you're obviously a little bit better than others and last week was outstanding.”
At the midway mark of the season, Utah’s preparation has paid dividends in a variety of ways. The Utes lead the nation in fewest fumbles lost with just one. They top the Pac-12 in several statistical categories, including field goal percentage (1.000), onside-kick percentage (1.000), PAT percentage (1.000), red zone offense (90.9 percent), sack average (3.33 per game) and sacks (20).
Kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett are the leading duo in the conference. Phillips has yet to miss this season, connecting on 11 field goals and 27 PATs. Hackett is first with an average of 44.1 yards per punt and 14 placed inside the 20.
Quarterback Travis Wilson also ranks highly after six games. He’s 13th in the nation in points responsible per game (18) and 17th in total offense (320.5 ypg).
Other individuals among the Pac-12 statistical leaders include linebacker Trevor Reilly (second, fumbles recovered), Nate Orchard (third, forced fumbles), Keith McGill (fourth, passes defended), Geoffrey Norwood (fifth, punt returns) and Bubba Poole (ninth, all-purpose yards).
Team-wise, the Utes rank fifth in scoring offense (37 points per game) and third in rushing defense (133.7 yards per game).
On the improvement front, Whittingham pointed to kickoff coverage. Utah surrendered a 100-yard return to Stanford’s Ty Montgomery last week.
“We've got to get that fixed,” Whittingham said. “If you look at the football team in its entirety and say, ‘Where's your Achilles' heel?’ It's probably the kickoff coverage unit right now. We've got to get that addressed and we will.”
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