SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is going back to the ‘ship.
The No. 6 Utes overcame a slow first quarter to beat the visiting Colorado Buffaloes 45-15 in the final game of the regular season and claim the Pac-12 South Division title for the second consecutive season.
Utah closed out the regular season with its first 11-1, 8-1 record since joining the Pac-12 and is the first team from the South Division to claim two consecutive division titles.
“We played well this evening once we (got) going — a little slow start,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The first quarter wasn't much that we got accomplished. Credit them, they played well in the first quarter and then we started to get some momentum, and then really got things going in the second half.”
Utah opened up the game with three consecutive three-and-out series and didn’t pick up a first down until senior quarterback Tyler Huntley completed a pass to Jaylen Dixon for a 10-yard pickup at the end of the first quarter. But the Utes reeled off 17 second-quarter points behind two touchdown passes from Huntley to tight end Brant Kuithe to get things going for Utah.
Kuithe accounted for much of Utah’s first-half offense and had 59 rushing yards and 63 receiving yards, including a 44-yard sweep to put Utah in the red zone for its second score of the game. Kuithe’s first touchdown was a 38-yard reception on a rollout scramble by Huntley, who found the tight end open in the end zone.
Kuithe finished with three touchdowns, including a 15-yard rushing touchdown with just over five minutes left in the game to give Utah its final score of the night, and 59 rushing yards on two carries and 63 receiving yards on three catches to lead the team.
“We weren't get much done in the run game and we turned to Kuithe and he made some big plays for us — some big receptions as well as a couple big runs from that little tight end sweep that Andy (Ludwig) has designed,” Whittingham said.
Kuithe, who has emerged as of late as a potent threat for the offense, said he’s known he could be a difference-maker for the team, but needed some opportunities.
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“I always knew I could do that, it's just given the opportunity to just make plays open in space and just credit all the guys on the offensive line and everybody else playing on the field,” Kuithe said. “It's not just me, it's 10 other guys, so credit to them also.”
Huntley closed out his final game at Rice-Eccles Stadium with another strong performance to lead his team to victory. The senior from Florida finished throwing for 165 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-17 passing.
The Utes closed out the half with a 23-yard field goal by Jadon Redding after Julian Blackmon recovered a short punt and ran for 35 yards to get into Colorado territory. The Buffaloes were called for a late hit personal foul on the punt return to eventually set up the quick score for the Utes.
The punt return was one of two big plays on special teams by the Utes to turn the tide in their favor. Senior receiver Demari Simpkins returned a 66-yard punt down the sideline for a touchdown, the first of his career, to give the Utes another score and add to a 31-point unanswered streak for the Utes.
“It felt good, I feel blessed,” Simpkins said. “I always knew I had it me, I just had to wait — wait for the perfect look. I had perfect blocks on the return unit, and it just all worked out.”
Colorado, which needed a win to become bowl eligible in head coach Mel Tucker’s first season with the program, was the first to score Saturday on a 7-yard passing touchdown from quarterback Steven Montez to Brady Russell. The 12-play, 62-yard drive took just over five minutes off the clock to give the Buffaloes the early lead.
The score was the first time since Utah played Washington State at home that a team had scored a touchdown in Salt Lake City. Colorado would score again to start the fourth quarter on a 27-yard pass from Montez to Daniel Arias.
Colorado ended the first quarter with 91 total yards of offense, but were held to only 126 total yards for the remainder of the game. Utah’s run defense, which leads the nation, held the Buffaloes to only 60 yards on the ground to make it the 11th time this season Utah has held an opponent to under 100 yards.
The Utes will next play the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship game on Friday, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. MST in Santa Clara, California.
“We're on a short week and ready for Oregon up in Santa Clara. We've got to get to work on them right away,” Whittingham said. “That's a big reason why a lot of these seniors came back. There were four or five of them that could have exited last year and turned professional, but they had some unfinished business and now they're back in position to try to finish that business.”