Crimson versus Cardinal, red against red
Unranked takes on ranked, going head to head
Utah proved its mettle, and showed some pride
No bridesmaid this time, Utah was the bride!
COMMENTARY — Let’s be clear about one thing right up front — Stanford did not lose, but rather Utah flat out beat Stanford.
Do you remember bespectacled, little Ralphie from A Christmas Story? After being bullied repeatedly throughout the movie, one day Ralphie finally snapped and beat the living tar out of the neighborhood bully.
That is what the Utes did to Stanford. They didn’t just take Stanford’s lunch money, but rather Utah held Stanford upside down by its ankles and shook until all of the Cardinal’s loose change had fallen out. And then, just for good measure, Utah punched Stanford in the gut at the end of the game.
The Utes prevailed over the Cardinal in virtually every aspect of this game.
Utah out-rushed Stanford 181 yards to 143. Stanford finally passed Utah in receiving yards on the Cardinal’s final drive of the game to finish with 246 yards passing to Utah’s 234, but the Utes still had 415 yards of total offense compared to Stanford’s 389.
Utah was the first team to score a touchdown in the first quarter against Stanford all year. In fact, the Utes scored TWO touchdowns in the first quarter.
Stanford had 14 points in the first half, and only 7 points in the second half, which represented the only two halves played by Stanford all year in which it had not scored at least 17 points per half.
Utah’s defense consistently sent the Cardinal’s offense packing with nothing to show for its efforts. The Utes had 22 first downs while Stanford only had 13. Consequently, Stanford only ran 56 offensive plays and Utah ran 73.
Utah recovered two huge fumbles and only gave up a single interception.
Andy Phillips remained perfect in kicking for the Utes, hitting a career-long 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to give Utah a 13-point lead. In contrast, Stanford missed a critical field goal, which meant it had to try and score a touchdown on its last possession instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal to tie and force overtime.
The one area in which the Cardinal truly excelled over the Utes was in kick returns, taking one of Utah’s kickoffs all the way to the house for a touchdown (otherwise the game wouldn’t have even been close at the end). I was wondering if the Utes might try an onside kick after scoring, because that is about the place on the field where the ball ended up after a Stanford return anyway, and it was less likely to be returned for a touchdown.
So what was the most telling statistic? Utah did not have an interception returned for a touchdown. The Utes are now 0-2 in games in which they throw a pick-six, and 4-0 when they don’t.
This was a program defining, signature win for Utah. Stanford was the highest-ranked team to ever lose in Salt Lake City, and gave Utah its first win over a Top 5 team since the Utes thumped Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. What a fitting way for Kyle Whittingham to notch his 75th career win as Utah’s head coach.
The Utes have now proven they belong in the Pac-12.
I must confess that the game was not all sunshine and roses for Utah fans. I looked on with some trepidation as Stanford mounted a comeback late in the fourth quarter. The troubling thought ran through my mind that if the Utes let another game slip through their fingers, they’d be racking up more near misses than LA International Airport would have with Larry the Cable Guy working as the air traffic controller. Fortunately, that was not the case, and Utah finished the game strong to claim the victory.
Of course, the celebration for Utah fans must be short-lived. The Utes cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Utah still has half a season left, with some very tough opponents still on the schedule — including a trip to Eugene, Ore., to face the Ducks in November.
The loss against UCLA is going to be the biggest obstacle for Utah to overcome. UCLA is currently undefeated in the Pac-12 South Division, including a tie-breaking win over Utah. Arizona State only has a single conference loss, but Utah can give the Sun Devils a second conference loss in Salt Lake City on Nov. 9. Every other team in the South Division already has two conference losses, including Utah.
In other words, the Utes are going to need some help in order to have a chance to find their way into the Pac-12 Championship Game. Some of that help could come as early as this Saturday as Stanford, still licking its wounds from its defeat at the hands of Utah, takes on UCLA at home in Palo Alto. UCLA then goes on the road the following week to play the Ducks in Eugene.
Is it a longshot for Utah to make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game? Perhaps. Is it possible? Absolutely! Will it happen? I wish I knew, but I am certainly hoping it does.
For now, I am just looking forward to Utah’s first road conference game against Arizona in Tucson this Saturday and the Utes new lease on Pac-12 life.
“Going forward, what we try to do is accentuate to the players the reason for the win,” Whittingham said Monday afternoon. “(It was) the great week of practice, their focus, their film study, everything that went into winning the football game. (We’ll) emphasize to them that’s what needs to happen again.”
If it does, the sky’s the limit for the future of the Utah football program.
So buckle up, and keep your arms and hands inside the ride at all times. The remainder of Utah’s season promises to be one wild ride!
Dwayne Vance is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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