SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s 35-27 win over BYU was the latest in a series of come-from-behind victories for the Utes. Besides against the Cougars, this season’s rallies came against Weber State, Northern Illinois, USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon and Colorado.
After clinching the Pac-12 South with the triumph in Boulder on Nov. 17, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that slow starts had kind of been a recurring theme. He added that it wasn’t a positive, but was something the Utes have been able to overcome.
That was certainly the case in Saturday’s rivalry game. Utah trailed 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
“I am very proud of our players and coaches for hanging in there,” Whittingham said. “I thought we were outplayed in the first half and came out in the second half with a lot of purpose, desire and determination.”
It paid off as Utah defeated BYU for the eighth straight time.
The Utes had just 86 yards of total offense and four first downs over the first two quarters. They ratcheted the numbers up to 296 yards and 18 first downs by game’s end. Freshman quarterback Jason Shelley completed 13 of 16 passes in the second half.
Utah scored touchdowns on five of its final six possessions. The Utes also got the job done defensively. BYU’s second-half drives resulted in three punts, two loss on downs, an interception that resulted in a pick-six for Utah, and a touchdown.
“It was a collective thing, and we just got momentum from the offense and defense,” Whittingham said.
The Utes received a blunt talk from Whittingham at halftime.
“Are you willing to be pushed around in the second half and sleepwalk? Or can we play like we are capable of playing?” he said. “That was the short, less colorful version.”
Utah (9-3) now carries a three-game winning streak into Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game (6 p.m., FOX) against Washington (9-3) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The streak has come with starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss sidelined with injuries. Backups like Shelley and Armand Shyne have stepped up as the Utes moved forward.
“It says a ton about these guys. All year long they have been handling adversity,” Whittingham said. “I cannot remember a team handling slow starts and things not going their way to fight through it like this one.”
Shelley insists it’s all about the team’s approach. They’re mindful of the task at hand and try not to look ahead.
“This was our biggest game of the season,” he said after the win over BYU. “Then, after this one, we could focus on next week.”
It’s served the Utes well on the road to their first outright Pac-12 South title and trip to the conference championship game. They were at a crossroads on a couple of occasions.
The first came after opening Pac-12 play with losses to Washington (21-7) and Washington State (28-24).
“There were a few unfortunate events in those first two games,” said senior punter Mitch Wishnowsky, a team captain. “Everyone on the team knew we were a few plays away from winning them both.”
As such, Wishnowsky explained that the Utes felt they could still win the Pac-12 South.
“We knew that we had just played, probably, the two best teams in the conference. So it’s not like anybody dropped their head,” Wishnowsky said. “We just knew if things came together and everyone did their job, things would pan out. It started with a 40-21 win at Stanford on Oct. 6, the lone win Utah had this season in which it never trailed — not for a single second.
“That was pivotal because, had we lost that one, it’s pretty much turn out the lights,” Whittingham said.
Utah won four straight games to get back in the title chase. Then came adversity in the form of a 38-20 loss at Arizona State, complete with Huntley’s injury.
“Everyone was disappointed. Obviously we didn’t play well. They did play well,” said Whittingham, who noted that the Utes were still in the hunt at that point even though they had to have some help in the form of another loss by the Sun Devils.
“But we knew that nothing mattered if we didn’t take care of our business, and that’s the approach we took,” Whittingham continued. “They went right back to work that Monday, and it was a phenomenal week of practice.”
The Utes went on to defeat Oregon and then Colorado to finish on top of the division at 6-3. ASU wound up losing to the Ducks before it was over, giving the Sun Devils their fourth conference loss.
Whittingham acknowledged that the Pac-12 South title is good to have in Utah’s pocket, and no one can take it away from them. However, he insists the Utes have a lot more football to play and a lot more to accomplish.
Senior linebacker Cody Barton, who is also a captain, said the team has been calling it since summer. Utah is now one win away from a berth in the Rose Bowl.
“We knew this was our year to do it. We’ve been calling it out and so everything is falling into place,” Barton said. “It’s not done yet. It’s all working out so far. We hit adversity, obviously, (but) we ended up with the South title and there’s a lot more work to do.”13 comments on this story
EXTRA POINTS: Utah held BYU to just 110 yards of total offense in the second half. … Demari Simpkins led the Utes with five receptions. … Linebacker Chase Hansen made a game-high three tackles for loss. … Cornerback Julian Blackmon had a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown and two pass breakups. … Utah finished with three sacks, while BYU had one. … Saturday’s announced attendance was 46,017.
2018 Pac-12 Championship Game
No. 17 Utah (9-3) vs. No. 11 Washington (9-3)
Levi’s Stadium — Santa Clara, Calif.
Friday, 6 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM