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Tavion Thomas tears through trees in 52-7 rout over Stanford

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs in for his second touchdown, putting the Utes up 14-0 over the Stanford Cardinal after the PAT, in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs in for his second touchdown, putting the Utes up 14-0 over the Stanford Cardinal after the PAT, in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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STANFORD, Calif. — If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of Tavion Thomas still running for touchdowns.

The sophomore running back, who emerged as Utah's starting running back recently, completed the hat trick — and more — for the second-straight week as the Utes rolled past Stanford 52-7 Friday night.

Over a two-game period, Thomas has eight touchdowns and is one touchdown shy of tying the all-team single-season record of 15 touchdowns held by former Utah (6-3, 5-1) running backs John White (2011) and Zack Moss (2019). And Thomas had all that done with six minutes left in the second quarter.

"It felt good," Thomas said. "We're doing our job every day — we're working hard, and it's paying off."

The dynamic running back, which got the help from an offensive line that picked apart Stanford's defense all game, finished the night rushing for 177 yards on 20 carries. Thomas averaged 8.9 yards per carry en route to a dominant win over the Cardinal.

And just for good measure, TJ Pledger wanted in on the fun and added a 96-yard rushing touchdown to continue the scoring onslaught in the opening half of play to give the Utes a 35-0 lead. The run also happened to be the longest rushing touchdown in Utah history — as if the team needed another thing to celebrate.

Utah tacked on a 29-yard field goal from Jadon Redding with two seconds left in the half to make it 38-0 lead at the break.

But in the second half, Micah Bernard added a score of his own, an 11-yard run to make it six rushing touchdowns on the night for the running back room who had three rushers eclipse the 100-yard mark for the first time in school history. Bernard finished with 110 yards on 12 carries and Pledger added 107 yards on four carries.

"I want to see all my brothers eat, man," Thomas said. "We ain't selfish. We all have got to go, and I want to see them boys. ... I just want to see them keep doing their thing. We've got to finish, and we're going to need everybody."

What felt like the only thing that could stop Utah and its run game that put up 441 yards on the night — the most in the Kyle Whittingham era — was a high snap that led to a fumble recovery by Stanford (3-6, 2-5) in the first quarter. But like much of the night, the Cardinal couldn't capitalize on the moment and was forced to punt. Stanford only managed 28 total yards of offense by halftime, in contrast to Utah's 440 yards.

Utah's rushing total on the night was the most against a Stanford team since 2010 — and most of it (336 yards) was done in only one half of play. The success in the run game started early on Utah's first drive of the game and never let up. Utah, again, elected to start on offense Friday, which gave the offense a chance to set the tone of the game.

And with relative ease, Utah had no problem marching down the field for a score — the fourth straight game with a score on Utah's opening drive this season.

"We thought tonight it was and last week as well, obviously," Whittingham said of the advantage to start with the ball at the beginning of the game. "They've been playing with such confidence on that side of the ball and the execution level has been so high that we figured that it was another good opportunity to start fast and see if we can put points on the board on the first drive."

The Cardinal were without starting quarterback Tanner McKee, who was out with an undisclosed injury and on crutches. In his replacement, Stanford used a two-quarterback system with Jack West and Isaiah Sanders, but it failed to make much of an impact on the game. At the end of the first quarter, the Cardinal had -13 total yards on offense.

Utah's defense consistently lived in Stanford's backfield, led by Devin Lloyd's nine tackles and one sack on the night. But the defensive play of the night came when Lloyd picked off a pass in the fourth quarter at Stanford's 2-yard line and found the end zone on a quick play.

"It was incredible," Whittingham said. "I saw it happen in real time and then I watched it on replay. I still couldn't believe that he could have the reflexes and the athleticism to make that catch, and then find his way to the end zone. It was only a couple yards, but still he was — that's who he is, he's a big play guy."

Added Lloyd "I was kind of shocked. I was like, I can't believe it. It just stuck to my hands. It felt really good to get back in the end zone. Being a former receiver, I used to love getting in the end zone. When I went on the defensive side I kind of got away from it, so it always feels good to get back in there."

Stanford managed to put together a scoring drive to open up the second half and marched down the field 56 yards on nine plays to score the team's only touchdown of the night. Making something out of nothing on a broken play, Sanders escaped off the edge and found the end zone on a 4-yard rush to give the Cardinal a score in the third quarter.

But the Cardinal fell back into its first half form after that opening second-half drive and failed to move the ball again for the rest of the night. The Cardinal finished with 167 total yards of offense as the two quarterbacks combined for 85 yards on a combined 15-of-23 passing.

"Obviously proud of our guys and the way they played the game tonight," Whittingham said. "Started fast, never really let up offensively. We just kept executing and doing things the way they're supposed to be done. All first half defense smothered them — played exceptional. The statistics at halftime were so skewed, it was — I don't know how you can play much better than we did.

"We were hitting on all cylinders tonight," he added. "Run games was in high gear; that was really the key to the game is our ability to run the football efficiently and effectively and for a bunch of yards."

Not to be lost in the night's performance, the Utes became bowl eligible with the win over the Cardinal and are in solid position to claim the South division of the Pac-12, setting up the program's third championship appearance in the last four years.

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