Even though our numbers were not good at all, we took care of the football, and that’s job one. —Kyle Whittingham
LAS VEGAS – Kyle Whittingham was pragmatic when asked how Saturday’s 35-28 victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Royal Purple Bowl impacted the future of his program.
Practically speaking, Utah exceeded preseason expectations with their 10-3 finish.
“It’s a 10-win season, which is the high-water mark since we joined the Pac-12,” Utah’s head coach said after Saturday’s game. “That’s a big positive. We were co-champs of the south after being picked to finish fifth in pre-season. We feel like we’re trending in the right direction. We built on last year.”
Utah loses some key seniors – quarterback Travis Wilson, running back Devontae Booker, senior center Siaosi Aiono, wide receiver Kenneth Scott, defensive tackle Viliseni Fauonuku, safety Tevin Carter, linebackers Gionni Paul, Jason Whittingham and Jared Norris, as well as punter Tom Hackett.
But they also have a lot of returning starters to build around — most of their lineman, most of their receivers, team captain and kicker Andy Phillips and running back Joe Williams.
While the victory was a “capstone” moment for the Ute defense, it was another abysmal performance by the offense. Whittingham said part of the problem was the team’s receiving corps, which were depleted by injuries.
“By the end of the game, we were running on fumes on offense,” he said. “We lost Cory Butler-Byrd (ejected after two unsportsmanlike calls) Caleb Repp twists his ankle and Scotty (Kenneth Scott) and (Britain) Covey were trying the best they could (with injuries), but they were limited. At receiver, it was a real skeleton crew out there.”
In fact, senior backup quarterback Kendal Thompson ended up playing receiver for Utah, snagging one catch for eight yards.
Still, Whittingham said the offense did the most important thing in Saturday’s win.
“Even though our numbers were not good at all,” Whittingham said of Utah’s 197 total offensive yards, “we took care of the football, and that’s job one.”
Utah’s offensive load was carried by running back Joe Williams, who finished with 113 all-purpose yards. Travis Wilson, who was sacked three times, went 9 for 16 with 71 yards. And while he didn’t have a passing touchdown, he did have one 20-yard rushing touchdown, which was his seventh of the year. With a total of 75 touchdowns, Wilson leaves the U. with three records games played by a quarterback (46); starts by a quarterback (39) and wins by a starting quarterback (24-15).
“We’ve got to find some answers,” he said. “I can tell you right now, there were not a lot of answers at receiver at the end of the game.”
Some of the answers could be found in the players’ mental preparation.
Whittingham admitted it was difficult to play with a 35-0 lead, while linebacker Gionni Paul said he thought they became complacent.
“In some ways it is (harder than trailing),” Whittingham said. “But that’s our job to not allow that to happen, not to get complacent. We got complacent and that’s on me. We’ve got to do a better job next time we’re up 35-0 and hopefully we won’t have the same result, as far as the let down.”
Still, he praised the team’s defense which was impressive, and not just in the first quarter. The Utes held BYU to 71 yards rushing. Their pass defense, on the other hand, was weaker as BYU found success on the outside of the field with 315 yards.
The defense’s three interceptions gave the Utes 22 on the season, which is the most Utah has earned since 1979.
“We made those plays,” he said of forcing the five turnovers. “Those plays weren’t gift-wrapped. That’s just our defense.”
He said their bowl preparation is something in which the entire program takes pride.
“Our team works hard in bowl preparation,” he said. “We don’t take it lightly. We get after it – run, condition and go out and practice hard. There are teams that take a couple of weeks off and then go out and practice four or five days for an hour or two and call it good. That’s not our M.O. These guys deserved to win this game, and they earned it.”
The coach was unwilling to blame the offense for the near collapse, giving credit to BYU for battling back into the game.
“When all is said and done,” he said, “it was a team victory.”
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