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Thomas rushes for 180 yards as No. 13 Utah pulls away for 42-7 win over Stanford


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SALT LAKE CITY β€” Don't blame Utah for looking ahead to next week's road contest against Oregon.

After all, the Utes were favored by 24 points against a Stanford team that had only one win in conference play and three wins on the season. It was senior night and the team wanted a win for the last time at Rice-Eccles Stadium this season, but lacking energy and frigid temperatures had Utah struggling to pull away from the Cardinal in the first half.

It was enough for Stanford to have a chance at making next week's game nothing more than a standard road trip.

That is until the second half, when starting running back Tavion Thomas established a dominant run game against a Stanford defense giving up an average of 215.9 yards per game. Thomas' 180 yards on 22 carries helped Utah pull away from Stanford 42-7 in front of an announced crowd of 51,951 late Saturday night.

It was the first 100-yard rushing performance for Thomas since he finished with 115 yards in the first week of the season against Florida. He finished the night with more rushing yards than Stanford's entire offense, who eventually finished with 177 yards (including just 22 on the ground) against the Utes (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12).

"Tavion Thomas had a big game," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It was great to see him in his last game here at Rice-Eccles get back to his old self, and that was something that β€” really proud of him and glad that he's weathered the storm, I guess you could say."

Thomas sparked a Utah offense that reeled off three consecutive touchdowns with ease in the third quarter, including a 16-yard pass from freshman quarterback Nate Johnson to senior tight end Logan Kendall, his first at Utah.

After a first half that looked out of sync and lethargic, Utah returned to normal form and easily put distance on the Cardinal (3-7, 1-7).

"Great effort by our football team," Whittingham said. "We weren't as productive and efficient as we needed to be in the first half, but in the second half we got things going and got control of the game completely in that third quarter β€” and never looked back."

Rising said the team "cleaned it up" in the second half after a first half that featured several holding penalties to put Utah in long-yardage situations. He said once that was all corrected at the halftime break, the game returned to regular form for Utah.

"Eliminated the mistakes and things started to go our way," he said.

Rising, who said Saturday that he "believes so" that it will be his last at Rice-Eccles Stadium, finished the night throwing for 219 yards and three touchdowns and an interception on 20-of-33 passing.

His favorite target of the night, sophomore Devaughn Vele, finished with 61 yards on six catches, including an athletic catch on a 28-yard pass to set up a 4-yard rushing touchdown by Thomas in the second quarter.

Utah's offense deserved the credit for putting distance on Stanford in the second half, but it was the defense that limited the Cardinal to under 200 yards that gave the offense the runway it needed. Defensive tackle Simote Pepa led the team with six total tackles and two of the team's seven sacks in an all-around defensive performance.

The defense finished with an addition nine tackles for loss and had three pass breakups against Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee, who finished with 155 yards on 11-of-23 passing.

"Coach always emphasize the preparation β€” being prepared for the game, knowing what to anticipate and knowing how to react to it when you see it," said senior Mohamoud Diabate, who finished with three tackles and 1.5 sacks. "So we just did a great job listening to our coaches throughout the week and putting in the work behind the scenes to be able to come out here and produce like that."

"The last few weeks we've really just honed in: if you do your assignment the plays will come to you," said defensive end Jonah Elliss, who also had 1.5 sacks and four tackles in the win.

And though Utah finished with a dominant win, it was anything but that in the first half.

Instead of a run-heavy scheme against Stanford's porous defense, Utah opted for a more pass-heavy scheme that was disjointed and out of sync for much of the first half. Rising overthrew passes, receivers dropped balls, and the offense never got into a consistent rhythm as the Utes were held scoreless in the first quarter.

There were certainly opportunities, and Vele made a showing of it, but the offense lacked a spark. And that's even with Thomas finishing the first half with 77 yards on 15 carries.

But none of that was more apparent than when Utah had a drive at the end of the second quarter where Rising was picked off in the back of the end zone on an attempted pass to Dalton Kincaid. Utah had a chance to go into the halftime break up 21-7, but had to settle for a closer 14-7 score.

Utah was never in risk of losing control of the game, but the offense made it harder on itself than it needed before ending the game with six consecutive touchdowns.

The Utes finish the regular season with a perfect 6-0 streak at Rice-Eccles Stadium and will closeout the year with back-to-back road games, starting off in a pivotal contest against Oregon (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) on Saturday.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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