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As Whittingham nears all-time win record, Utes remain focused on Arizona



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Over a 25-year career at the University of Utah, which included a two-year stint as the university's basketball coach, college football Hall of Famer Ike Armstrong cemented a legacy that is nearly impossible to beat as the program's head coach.

In that quarter century of an illustrious career that included 13 conference championships and a defense in 1930 that allowed only 20 points all year in one of three of his undefeated seasons, Armstrong amassed a 141–55–15 (70.4%) overall record. It's a record that would stand untouched since 1949.

Ron McBride, who coached from 1990-2002, came the closest to matching Armstrong's mark with an 88-63 overall record, but his time was cut short following a pair of down seasons at the turn of the century. McBride is credited, among other things in his time with the university, with hiring the defensive-minded Kyle Whittingham to his coaching staff.

And the rest is history.

Whittingham, who is currently in his 17th season as the program's head coach, can tie Armstrong's win-total record Saturday with a victory on the road against an Arizona (1-8, 1-5) program that recently snapped a 20-game losing streak.

And while tying the record is not on Whittingham's mind — he said he didn't even know he was close to the record on Monday — it puts him in position to become the program's all-time winningest coach with a win in one of the final two games of the regular season at Rice-Eccles Stadium. But the long-time coach said he's just "fortunate and blessed" for those who have helped him get there.

"It does things in terms of feeling fortunate and blessed of all the great players that I've had the chance to coach and that have come through here and have put that record together," Whittingham said Monday. "Because it's not it's not my record; it's a culmination of a bunch of really good players, a bunch of really good assistant coaches, a bunch of good support from the administration, all tying together. So that's how I look at it."

Earlier this month, Whittingham became the second-longest active coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It's a mark that led him to reflect on a tenure that he expected to see end three or four years into his head coaching career with the university.

But all of that is secondary in his eyes; first Arizona.

For Whittingham to break the all-time record — or even tie it for that matter — No. 24 Utah (6-3, 5-1) can't take its focus off the prize, even if its upcoming opponent has been the bottom-dweller of the conference for at least the last three seasons.

"Pedal to the metal; it has to stay down," Utah quarterback Cam Rising said after his team dominated Stanford on the road Friday. "We have a job to do, we have a goal that we want to accomplish, and we still have to keep going."

Whittingham said Arizona now has confidence after breaking a double-digit losing streak — fans rushed the field as the team celebrated a win over a COVID-decimated California program Saturday — and could be poised to steal one from a Utah team that controls its own destiny as the South division favorite with three games left in the regular season.

"I'm sure they're going to do everything in their power to build on that and try to continue the momentum," Whittingham said. "But then, conversely, we're going to do everything in our power to try to get a win on the road. And so we'll see what happens.

"If we can just keep in the same mode we're in right now — not looking past anybody — understanding that the game is won Monday through Friday with your preparation, and just continue to work hard during the week, then that's going to be in our best interest," he added.

The game Saturday isn't about Whittingham's record — it can be an added bonus — it's about Utah moving one step closer to its goal of returning to the Pac-12 Championship game, with the hopes of finally being on the winning side of the game. Utah currently has a 98.7% chance of winning the South division, according to ESPN, and a 56.5% chance of winning the conference.

Those figures obviously favor the Utes, who control a one-game lead over Arizona State in the division title race, but the goal of the week is all about getting out of Tucson with a win, and then continuing that single-minded focus until the team's goal is actually realized.

"I would guess that the group that we have here has great leadership — I don't guess, I know they have great leadership — and they'll handle it just like we have the past several weeks," Whittingham said. "It's just we're settling into our routine and it's just rinse and repeat; every week you start over and do the same things."

"I mean, we're going to treat this like any other game," running back Micah Bernard added. "Every week is a big week and we're trying to get to our goal of the Pac-12 championship, so this is just an obstacle in our way, and we've just got to go through it."

Arizona has struggled on offense all season — including swinging door at the quarterback position — and is at or near the bottom of the conference (and the country) in nearly every important offensive statistical category, but it features the second-best passing defense in the conference. The Wildcats can present a problem in the passing game, but Utah's newly dominant run game could negate Arizona's strength.

The Utes featured three running backs that each surpassed the century mark in rushing yards Friday, including Tavion Thomas' four rushing touchdowns, to topple Stanford. Arizona allows on average 170.0 yards in the run game, which could bode well for the Utes, which features the second best rushing offense in the conference with an average of 291.67 yards per game.

And while what's worked in the past does not guarantee success in the future, Utah believes it's conditioned to be ready for a game in which it's favored by 24 points, and one necessary to lock up the South. There will be no overlooking Arizona — the stakes are too high.

"Coach Whitt's done a really good job," receiver coach Chad Bumphis said. "Again, this program has been in this situation before, and we take it one day at a time — one game at a time — so we just don't even talk about it. Our main focus right now is beating Arizona, and they understand that; they come in prepared just like any other week."

"The key to everything is that we control our destiny; that's the main thing is that we're able to control our destiny and not rely on anybody else," Whittingham said.

That path starts with a win over Arizona Saturday (12 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Networks) in Tucson, Arizona.

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