Utah Utes: Sudden contenders in Pac-12 South

…And down go the Bruins.

NCAA Football: Utah at UCLA

Utah Utes quarterback Kendal Thompson (1) scrambles past UCLA Bruins defense during second-quarter action at the Rose Bowl. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — Well, now. Far is wide. Up is down. Down is up. Tall is short. Short is tall. Winners are losers. Losers are winners.

Saturday marked the biggest day of upsets in college football as four of the top six programs went down in flames on the same weekend for the first time in history.

And, at the end, Andy Phillips hit a kick; then put his feet up on the couch, having won the game — after a last-second UCLA 50-yard attempt fell short and wide – Winners; losers. But only fitting that UCLA went down alongside Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon, and, of course, on the same day as USC’s jaw dropped in the end zone just up the road.

Yeah, so late Saturday night, Utah took down eighth-ranked UCLA, holding off the charging Bruins, 30-28, and changing everything in the Pac-12 South. It’s official: Nobody knows nothing no more about nothing; nuh-uh.

From the depths of what took place at Rice-Eccles against Washington State last week straight through to the lofty Rose Bowl in the Arroyo Seco, where unbeaten UCLA awaited the Utes, any possible ascent from defeat to victory had the look of the north face of the Eiger, Annapurna, anyone – K2?

There were no sheer cliffs or rock falls or avalanches for Utah to worry about, just a quarterback named Brett Hundley; a man who tossed two late long bombs to make this game so, so close.

And a bunch of other athletic Bruins who posed challenges for Utah’s defense that it had not yet encountered in quite the same way, at quite the same speed. If the Utes had any advantage here it was along the defensive front, which came into this game ranked second nationally and first in the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss per game.

Utah Utes offensive lineman J.J. Dielman (68) hugs assistant coach Jim Harding after the Utes upset the UCLA Bruins 30-28 at the Rose Bowl. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Utes offensive lineman J.J. Dielman (68) hugs assistant coach Jim Harding after the Utes upset the UCLA Bruins 30-28 at the Rose Bowl. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

Disruption, making Hundley uncomfortable, was Job 1. Then, for the pressure guys who had averaged 4.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs in their first four games. The problem with that was this: Hundley is a smart, savvy QB who knows how to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately into the hands of a slew of playmakers who capably handle the Bruins’ business from there.

At least they did — until they ran, in large part, into that inspired Utah defense, which sacked Hundley 10 times and limited him in his passing yards. The defense showed up stout — and it had to since the offense couldn’t do much early on. Tevin Carter’s pick-6 gave the Utes a 7-zip early lead.

The Utes “O” found inspiration thereafter — on a 42-yard TD pass from Kendal Thompson to Dres Anderson at the 13:45 mark of the second quarter, going up 14 points — and in the form of Thompson himself. He sparked an offense back from the dead of a week ago, and from the dead of that empty first quarter, to get enough done here to shock everyone, maybe even the Utes themselves. UCLA blew past ASU in the desert last week, crushing the Devils and climbing in the polls.

This was the definition of a reversal of fortunes. Good is bad. Bad is good.

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson could get nothing done. He completed two of five passes for five yards. Thompson spared him the fate of a miserably heavy night, coming on to lead the effort, passing for 95 yards and running for another 83. In combination with Devontae Booker, who gained 156 yards on the ground, the duo helped Dave Christensen’s offense come alive again. Alive enough, despite the fact the offensive coordinator now has a quarterback thing happening. Is it Wilson? Is it Thompson? It can’t be both, as everybody knows two-QB deals don’t work. Based on Saturday night, it’s now Thompson’s job.

Either way, just when it looked as though this year’s crimson iteration was just another example of a Utah team not yet prepared to succeed in the Pac-12, giving ground at home, now gained that lost ground back and regained badly needed momentum and confidence heading into a difficult stretch of conference play after a coming week off. For the Utes, it feels great to recalibrate and retool on a blank weekend with renewed vigor, renewed energy, with renewed hope.

Their showing here was impressive — even when they found themselves in the process of giving up a substantial lead. They got a slight one back.

Ultimately, two points was enough.

Not often has Utah won on the road, certainly not against a Pac-12 team with the kind of firepower UCLA has. The Utes were 3-10 away from Rice-Eccles before this gritty result. They needed a win in the worst way on Saturday night, an improbable win against a fine opponent predicted by many to win the South.

Now, nobody’s quite sure about anything. And that’s a positive for Utah.

The Utes managed to wash away their awful second-half showing against the Cougars, and now have a chance to move forward in an ascent that suddenly looks a whole lot more doable than it did a few short days ago.



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