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No. 19 Utah closes out regular season with win over Colorado

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Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Whether a Thanksgiving-induced slumber or with eyes on the Pac-12 Championship game next week, No. 19 Utah came out with a tryptophan-sized hangover.

In the opening minutes of the game, quarterback Cam Rising threw an interception — the first since Oct. 16 — and place-kicker Jadon Redding had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked. It was the antithesis to the type of performance the Utes expected to play with on a day when the university honored 19 juniors and seniors in the last game of the season at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"The way I try to play the game is one play at a time, and that wasn't a good play, so I had to go to the next one," Rising said. "That's pretty much how it is. I had all my teammates over there telling me they still believe in me and all that, so that always helps."

Rising shook off the opening quarter turnover and led the Utes to start the second quarter on a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive that was capped off with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brant Kuithe up the seam for the team's first score of the game. TJ Pledger set up the touchdown play with a 27-yard run to get the Utes within striking distance, and Utah was off and running.

On the ensuing Utah drive — a drive that started on the Colorado 39-yard line after the defense forced the Buffaloes to punt — Rising added to the point total with a 28-yard toss to tight end Dalton Kincaid, who broke a tackle to get into the end zone on the last couple of yards to give the Utes a 14-3 lead.

That, mixed with a 14-7 second half performance that included a defensive shutout, Utah closed out the regular season Friday with a 28-13 win over a visiting Colorado team missing a myriad of top talent, including starting running back Jarek Broussard (non-COVID illness), wide receiver Brenden Rice (injury) and linebacker Nate Landman (injury), among others.

"I thought our defense played exceptionally well today — 148 yards and zero touchdowns — and so that's about as good as it gets," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Proud of those guys. Offensively weren't as efficient and didn't execute quite as well as we have been over the last stretch — six, seven weeks — but did enough to win the football game. It wasn't our best performance — credit Colorado, they played hard."

Utah (9-3, 8-1 Pac-12) struggled for much of the game to get into a rhythm on offense and had several key moments where drives stalled in third- or fourth-down situations. The Utes turned the ball over three times on fourth downs deep inside Colorado territory, opting to go for a first down instead of kick a field goal.

Whittingham said the decision to go for it on fourth down was based heavily on the analytics and the "confidence level" of the field goal unit, which had a field goal attempt blocked early in the game. "I don't think we made a decision that went against the analytics tonight at all. I think it was all pretty much in line," he said.

"The week of practice was outstanding; there was no drop off in work ethic or focus or concentration," Whittingham added. "That was an indicator that we had the right mindset. We just weren't as — we didn't have the look in our eye like we did last week."

To the credit of Colorado (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12), the Buffaloes "were playing to ruin our season," receiver Britain Covey said.

Colorado trailed by 8 points at the halftime break and started the second half with a boost to make it a 1-point game as Nikko Reed returned the kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown. Suddenly it was a game.

But Rising, who finished throwing for 179 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-23 passing, and the offense, mixed with a stout Utah defense, went to work and put some distance on the Buffaloes in the third quarter.

Tavion Thomas, who finished the afternoon with 142 rushing yards, found the end zone on a 12-yard run after a 68-yard drive that lasted only 2:29. It was followed up on Utah's ensuing drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Covey on another quick-scoring drive. On the previous play, Rising connected with Covey on a 33-yard pass to set up the score.

Utah's defense lived in Colorado's backfield for much of the day and recorded seven tackles for loss — including four sacks — for 39 total yards. The pressure put a strain on Colorado as they were forced to go to max protect to take away Utah's blitzes. In all, Colorado finished the day with 148 total yards, with most of it (82 yards) coming in the first half.

"They're definitely a good team, but my guys just really stepped up and showed out today," said linebacker Devin Lloyd, who finished with nine total tackles, one sack and a QB hurry. "It was something special just to be able to do that, especially this being my last time in the stadium. ... I wouldn't have rather went out any other way than with these guys."

Added Whittingham: "This day and age that's not easy to do, and great job by our defense. ... A lot of really good stuff by that defense — they were active, they flew around."

The win gives Utah an undefeated home record, which is just the fourth time in Whittingham's tenure as head coach that such a mark has been accomplished — 2008, 2009 and 2019. It's also the third consecutive time the Utes clinched nine wins in a year when a full season was played.

Utah will return to action Friday (6 p.m. MT, ABC) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in the Pac-12 Championship game. The Utes can face one of three opponents, all rematches against either Oregon, Oregon State or Washington State.

"It's nice to be able to just focus on what we really want to focus on right now," Covey said. "It took a lot to really focus on this game throughout the week because our whole entire offseason we're talking about Pac-12 championships, so we are excited to be able to look forward now. We're not even going to celebrate this victory — like the moment we get home, we're just preparing."


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