Bleeding Red: Utes tied atop Pac-12 South; Remembering Brandon Jones

The end of the road is now drawing near
Five games left to play
No time to rest, just shift into high gear
Next stop is L.A.

COMMENTARY – And then there were two. The last two schools to join the conference—Utah and Colorado — now sit atop the South Division with identical 3-1 conference records. If that wasn’t unexpected enough, the Evergreen State has cornered the market in the North Division with Washington and Washington State as the only undefeated teams left in conference play (both of which have already steamrolled preseason conference favorite Stanford). The race for the Pac-12 title is starting to get really interesting.

utesOne game into the second half of the season, the Utes are already bowl eligible and literally one play away from undefeated. Ranked 19th in the AP Poll and 18th in the Coaches Poll, Utah is the junkyard dog that no one wants to play right now. The Utes remain firmly entrenched in the driver’s seat on the road to Santa Clara for the conference championship on Dec. 2

There is still a lot of football left to play (fortunately, because I’m not even close to being ready for this season to end), but thus far I think Kyle Whittingham may be doing some of the best coaching of his illustrious career. Just cobbling together an effective rushing attack with all of the injuries at running back this year is an impressive feat in and of itself. But costly injuries have not been limited to the backfield, not to mention key players unavailable for other reasons.

Joe Williams returned with a vengeance Saturday. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics
Joe Williams returned with a vengeance Saturday. | Photo courtesy Utah Athletics

Speaking of running backs, Joe Williams was the undisputed MVP in the win over Oregon State. Coming out of a self-imposed retirement for health reasons, and with only a few practices under his belt, Williams proceeded to carry the ball 34 times for a total of 179 yards (for an average of 5.3 yards per rush), and one touchdown. As Orleans so famously sang well before Williams was even born, “We’re still having fun and [Joe Williams] you’re still the one.”

Utah now faces a challenging trio of games, starting on the road against UCLA this week, home to Washington the following week, and then at Arizona State. Reminiscent of the Utes’ first year in the conference, the season finale against Colorado may decide whether or not Utah gets to play for the Pac-12 title. But as Whittingham consistently insists, let’s just take this one game at a time.

Similar to the situation when the Utes played the Trojans, the Bruins are a much better team than their 3-4 record might otherwise indicate. UCLA was the media’s preseason favorite to win the South, but is currently 1-3 in conference play, having dropped three of the last four games.

“Tough stretch of football coming up,” Whittingham said. “It all starts with UCLA this week. Our guys can’t be fooled by their record because they’re a good football team.”

A key factor is whether Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen will be on the field this Saturday or watching from the sidelines again, nursing injuries. UCLA has one of the worst rushing offenses in the country, ranking 126 out of 128 teams.

The Bruins only had 47 total yards rushing last week against Washington State, averaging 1.7 yards per carry. One of Utah’s strengths is its run defense, so if UCLA is going to have a chance this week, it’s going to have to do it through the air, and Rosen is a critical component of the Bruins passing game. UCLA will be a much tougher out for the Utes if Rosen plays than if he doesn’t.

“He’s a great player,” Whittingham said of Rosen. “He’s an NFL quarterback, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. If he goes, then we have got to be ready”

Game time Saturday at UCLA is 2 p.m. and the game will be on Fox.

Speaking of quarterbacks, former Utah quarterback Brandon Jones (1994-1996) recently passed away after a fatal bicycling accident in St. George last week. Jones and Kyle Whittingham arrived on the Hill the same year back in 1994, albeit on different sides of the ball. Jones entered the 1995 season as the starter, but was soon supplanted by his roommate, Mike Fouts. Nevertheless, Jones remained to be the consummate teammate and was well respected by Fouts and the rest of the team.

Just a few days prior to his passing, Brandon Jones had travelled to Salt Lake City to be with his former Ute teammates as the 1994 team (which won a then-record 10 games and achieved the highest post-season ranking in history for Utah at the time at No. 8 in the Coaches Poll and 10 in the AP Poll after beating Arizona in the Freedom Bowl) was inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame.

Brandon Jones and his wife Mitzi (on the right) with former Utah coach Ron McBride and his wife Vicki. | Photo courtesy Brandon Jones family
Brandon Jones and his wife Mitzi (on the right) with former Utah coach Ron McBride and his wife Vicki. | Photo courtesy Brandon Jones family

Jones had posted pics of the weekend on his Facebook page, along with the statement: “Had to post a few more pics of a great weekend and night with my teammates. Was so fun to get together after 22 years and see the same amount of love for one another now as back then. These guys are truly some great guys and I am honored to have been teammates with them playing for the best coach, Coach Mac. Big thanks to Mac and Vicky McBride for bringing this MAFU family together. We are all better men, husbands, and fathers because of you two. Much love to my MAFU family.” MAFU was an acronym created by Utah Coach Ron McBride that represented what he expected from his teams—Mental toughness, Aggressiveness, Fanatical effort, and Unity.

His passing is another reminder that football is just a game, and primarily a means to an end, rather than the end in and of itself for the majority of those who play. Football was one of the means used by Jones to hone his remarkable character and create lasting relationships. Jones will be missed by the people he touched both in and out of the game.

Jones lived in the St. George area, where he worked as an operations manager for Performance Diesel Inc., and was bishop of his LDS Ward. He is survived by his wife, Mitzi, and their three children.

A GoFundMe page has been created to raise funds to assist the Jones family.

With sincere condolences to the family of Brandon Jones, here’s hoping Utah keeps driving strong to the Pac-12 title with a big win over the Bruins on Saturday.

Bleeding Red is a sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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