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In 'Championship November,' Utes looking for strong finish in big test against Oregon



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — T.J. Pledger called it "Championship November."

It's the month where good teams dig a little deeper — in Utah's case 22% deeper — to push to the finish line. It's where the contenders are separated from the pretenders in pursuit of a conference championship. All the hard work, the offseason preparation comes to a head in November.

For Pledger, he's seen what it takes to be a championship contender firsthand.

The 5-foot-9, 196-pound back was part of the last three seasons of a six-year consecutive streak of Oklahoma winning the Big 12 title before he transferred to Utah over the offseason. He knows the routine well and what it takes to be a part of a winning culture.

Now lining up in Utah's backfield for his junior season, Pledger and the No. 24 Utes (7-3, 6-1) are positioned to make the program's third conference championship appearance in the last four seasons. The title appearance isn't yet a guarantee — Utah needs just one more win out of its last two games of the regular season to clinch the South division title.

Standing in the way of the Utes is No. 3 Oregon (9-1, 6-1), the North division favorite and potential future opponent in the conference title game — a rematch of the 2019 season where Oregon topped Utah. Saturday (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC) is where Utah has the potential to make its mark against the conference's top team with College Football Playoff aspirations.

That's to say nothing of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham's potential to become the all-time winningest coach in school history with a win over Oregon, who also can clinch the North division with a win Saturday. It's the marquee game in the Pac-12 of the top two teams with much on the line.

"It's the best time of the year, I'd say," Pledger said. "This is what we grind for all through the winter, though the summer, for this time — to be able to play for something meaningful at this time of the year. I just try to spread that to the young guys and let them know the importance and the level of focus that needs to be put into this week and going forward to be able to come out on the winning end."

"I feel like you get one game like this per season where you just know it's gonna be rockin' at Rice-Eccles and it's something to look forward to, so I'm pumped," added Britain Covey, who is no stranger to the Utah-Oregon meetings over the years, including a 62-20 win in 2015 when Covey was a freshman.

The players don't need a reminder of what's at stake, and Whittingham takes on the responsibility to not overhype one game on the conference schedule, even if it comes against a foe that has been a thorn in Utah's side over the years. Whittingham, no doubt, wants the win as much as anyone, but he remains focused on the standard week's preparation.

The even-keeled coach really has no choice. It's his best attempt to keep the players in check as the natural emotions of the game start to creep into the week's preparation.

"Nope, they're all the same. We treat them all the same. We prepare the same exact way," Whittingham said Monday morning. "Meeting structure, practice structure, everything in the Pac-12 — because if you don't, it doesn't matter who you're playing; you're going to get beat if you're not ready to go. And so we approach it the same exact way every single week."

That regimented coach speak is Whittingham's way of trying not to overplay a big game, especially one where he could set the all-time winning record at Utah, breaking Ike Armstrong's 141 wins over a 25-year coaching tenure. But none of that matters to Whittingham, at least in the moment with his focus solely on that of his next opponent.

It's all about going 1-0 each week for Whittingham and his players.

"We're gonna really do our best to block that out, but that gives you energy come game day," Covey said about the game. "I've played in enough of these games to know that that really does have an effect on you, so I'm excited for that.

"I think it's one of those typical kind of sports cliches that every answer is the same when you ask them, and so it's like every opponent's the same, right? But at the end of the day, everybody knows that this week isn't the same as every other week. We're going to prepare the same because that's what's worked, and I think that's what the difference is. This week isn't the same because of the gravity of the situation, because of the respect we have for our opponent and how we're going to need to be on top of things. But our preparation is the same because that's what's been working."

That preparation is key, especially coming off a week where Utah didn't look its best in all facets of the game. The defense was "soft" at times and the special teams unit allowed another blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown to give Arizona a fighting chance at the upset win.

Those mistakes — the adversity — can be a benefit to the Utes, who were favored by 24 points over Arizona. Instead of a blowout win and cruising to a victory, Utah had to dig deep to escape the road trip with a win, even a team that has won only one game in its last 22 contests.

Tight end Brant Kuithe said it's a good thing for the team to get the bad — the multitude of mistakes — out the week before a tough game against Oregon and "learn from all the mistakes that we need to fix and just move on to the next week." It's an opportunity to push harder in the week's preparation.

"I think it's going to take not shooting ourselves in the foot," Covey said. 'We had that happen a lot this last week. I'm actually glad it happened this last week, going into this game, so that we can really clean up that stuff."

"I think it was important. All season long you're going to go through trials and everything," Pledger added. "And being able to get through it, I think your team — it shows just how strong your team is. Coming out of it, you end up growing stronger and we learn from the mistakes, so I think that's really important — just learning from the mistakes we made last week and being able to correct them."

All the team's goals made in the offseason — the goal to win the South division, a Pac-12 title and make the program's first-ever Rose Bowl appearance — culminate in a game the Utes are favored by a field goal to win on their home turf.

The game is no doubt important, but putting too much stock in one game is why Utah approaches it like any other game, even if everyone knows it means more.

"Of course I'm gonna put a little extra focus in just because, you know, the things at stake," Pledger said. "But we're going to treat it like a regular week and continue to work like we've been doing."

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