Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Even though it cost the Utah Utes a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, the celebration at Rice-Eccles Stadium simply got louder because of it.
After intercepting a pass with 1:54 remaining to preserve Utah’s 24-17 victory over Colorado, linebacker Trevor Reilly threw the ball into a jubilant crowd in the south end zone.
There was great joy in Uteville. The team’s five-game losing skid was over and seniors like Reilly could leave the program with a win.
“I’m just excited to get a win for the alumni, the former players and the seniors,” Reilly said before leaving the field. “I’m glad we were able to pull it out.”
Reilly, who finished with a team-high 14 tackles, joked that he’ll have to answer to coach Kyle Whittingham for throwing the ball into the stands.
“I was just overcome with emotion,” he said. “ ... I’m glad we got the pick. I’m glad we got the win.”
The outcome left the Utes with a 5-7 record for the second consecutive season. They finished 2-7 in Pac-12 play.
“Very happy for the seniors. We sent them out on a positive,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “This is a group that showed toughness and has fought through a lot of adversity this season.”
The Utes wasted little time taking control of their season finale. They forced a fumble on the second play from scrimmage and went on to score a touchdown eight plays later.
The swift action began when defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi jarred the ball loose as he sacked Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau. It was recovered by LT Tuipolutu on the Buffaloes’ 34-yard line. The Utes then marched to the end zone, although it took nearly three minutes and conversions on third and fourth down to do it. A 16-yard touchdown pass from Adam Schulz to Jake Murphy capped things off.
Leading 7-0 after Andy Phillips added the PAT, Utah put another score on the board before the first quarter was complete. A 6-yard touchdown run by Kelvin York followed an exchange of fumbles between the teams. Defensive end Jimmie Gilbert had a takeaway for Colorado and Tuipolutu recovered a second one for Utah, returning it 19 yards after Hunter Dimick knocked it away from Liufau.
York reached the end zone on the ensuing play.
After forcing the Buffaloes to punt, the Utes put together another scoring drive — increasing their lead to 21-0. A 1-yard touchdown run by York concluded a seven-play sequence with 11:16 remaining in the second quarter.
The score held firm throughout the balance of the half — despite a wild play that gave Colorado the ball on the Utah 5-yard line. Linebacker Addison Gillam picked off a pass from Schulz and recovered his own fumble after losing the ball when hit by Murphy.
The Buffaloes, though, were unable to stampede in for a score. After moving to the 1-yard line, they opted to go for it on fourth down, but Reilly tackled tailback Tony Jones for a 4-yard loss as the Utah defense made a successful stand.
Besides a 21-point halftime advantage, Utah held big edges in total yards (230-112) and first downs (12-6). The Utes also limited the Buffaloes to just 1-of-8 success on third downs.
Colorado’s offense managed to break through early in the second half, however. The Buffaloes closed the gap to 21-7 with 9:15 to go in the third when Luifau connected on a 34-yard scoring strike to Scott Fernandez. Will Oliver followed with the PAT to cap a seven-play, 78-yard drive by the Buffaloes.
Utah had an opportunity to match the touchdown later in the quarter, but a fumble at the goal line gave Colorado the ball back. After catching a pass from Schulz, Murphy tried to stretch his way into the end zone before safety Marques Mosley forced a fumble and teammate Jeffrey Hall scooped it up and returned it 42 yards. The Buffaloes eventually capitalized on the takeaway with a 19-yard field goal by Oliver to make it 21-10 with 12:17 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Utah responded with a 46-yard field goal by Phillips less than four minutes later to make it 24-10. Colorado tightened things down the stretch when Liufau teamed with Nelson Spruce on a 14-yard touchdown toss.
The Buffaloes attempted an onside kick with 2:30 left to play, but it failed. They did end up forcing the Utes to punt and took possession on their own 10 with just more than two minutes to go. On first down, though, Reilly picked off a pass and slid safely to the ground. He arose and threw the ball into the stands amid a chorus of cheers from the crowd.
Colorado (4-8, 1-8) was out of timeouts and Utah ran three plays before time expired.
“We were able to pull it out in the end," Reilly said. “That’s all that matters.”
Defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi was among the seniors savoring the moment, posing for pictures with family, friends and fans before heading to the locker room.
“I’m just happy we went out with the ‘W.’ Five losses in a row has been tough,” Palepoi said. “But to go out with a win is something special and hopefully they use this to carry on to next year and use this momentum to work toward the Pac-12 championship.”
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