Against the snowy backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains, Utah pulled out a win against Pac-12 South leader UCLA 31-6 Saturday to improve to 6-4 overall, and 3-4 in conference play.
The win puts Utah on a three-game conference win streak after starting the season 0-4 in conference play. Utah's post-season record is a source of pride, and with Saturday's win, the Utes have become bowl eligible for the ninth straight season.
"It feels great [to be bowl eligible]. We're finally playing like the team we thought we would be, so definitely we're finishing our season how we want to," said senior corner Conroy Black. "We just have to keep our minds right and finish these last two games."
The drama of an otherwise mundane, choppy first quarter of rhythm-less offense was the fumble coughed up by punt returner Griff McNabb at the Utah 17 yard-line, which resulted in just a field goal for the Bruins which would account for the only points in the quarter.
Initially, it looked as if UCLA may have an edge with the offensive line blowing open early holes for the rush game. In the first quarter, UCLA possessed the ball for 9:27 and nearly tripled Utah's offensive output with 65 yards to Utah's 23. The problem, however, was that yard to yard, that output was erased by exactly 65 yards on seven penalties.
The second quarter hit, and Utah's John White took over. Rushing for just 19 yards in the first, White would rush for 47 in the second on nine rushes, including one touchdown.
The touchdown drive would consist of seven straight White rushes for 39 yards set up by a 60 yard Sean Sellwood punt that would be downed at the UCLA 2 yard line, followed by a defensive stand that netted the Bruins 3 total yards. After a 35 yard UCLA punt, Jon Hays and the offense were in good position, and capitalized with seven points and four point lead which they would carry into the locker room with them at halftime.
The result of it's decision to defer in the opening toss, Utah started the second half with the ball, and Utah once again took advantage with a 10 play, 74 yard drive culminating in a John White touchdown. This time, however, White caught a 13 yard toss from Jon Hays. On the drive, Hays rushed for five yards and a first down and went 3-3 for 62 yards putting the Utes up 14-3.
"I started to calm down, and snow started melting a little bit which gave us a chance to chuck it down field," Hays said of the pivotal drive he engineered to start the second half. "The receivers made some great plays."
UCLA's next two drives would result in a Conroy Black interception and a punt after going three and out. The punt put Utah at the UCLA 47 when sophomore Reggie Dunn ran a reverse 25 yards, and White would cap it off with a 22 yard rush for seven, increasing the Utah lead to 21-3.
Late in the third quarter however, the Bruin defense caught on to the Utes' offensive game plan, which was to run White until they stopped him. As such UCLA began to have some success in slowing him down to just 31 yards on 10 carries.
Despite hitting the brakes just a little for a stretch in the second half, White finished the night with 167 yards and one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown.
"We rushed for 224 yards tonight; a big dose of John White again. He had 33 carries, and every week I think that's too many," Whittingham summarized. "But all the guy does is get stronger as the game goes on. That's our blueprint, that's who we are."
As the Utes gain their offensive identity on the strength of White's performance, he is quick to give the credit to the offensive line, who has been under heavy fire and criticism through much of the season.
"We just got off the ball. The offensive line just wanted it more than the defensive line," White credited. "Our offense wanted it more than their defense."
UCLA gained momentum forcing a punt and taking an 11 play drive 54 yards into the red zone, but ultimately could not cap off the drive with six points. Instead, the Utah defense held, forcing a field goal which but Utah's lead to 21-6 to start the fourth.
The Utah offense continued to sputter slightly early in the fourth before senior corner Conroy Black iced the game with his second interception of the night, taking it 67 yards to the house and send Utah cruising to a 28-6 lead with 9:03 left in the contest.
"First of all, I just want to thank God for everything. But it's a great win and we've been working hard this week," Black immediately after the game on the field. "We knew we could shut down their offense. They're a run-first offense, so we knew if we could get them to throw the ball, we could win the game, and that happened."
Utah's defense would continue to control the game before the Bruins were given another taste of White, who racked up another 47 yards in the fourth quarter and chewing up approximately six minutes of game clock over the span of two Utah possessions, and culminating in a Coleman Petersen 38 yard field goal at the 4:05 mark of the game, effectively ending it.
Coming into the game, UCLA averaged over 200 yards on the ground, but the Utah defense held them to 146 rushing yards, which seemed too high considering the impressive performance by Kalani Sitake's unit. Kevin Prince, who was recruited by Utah at one point, finished with 146 yards and two interceptions.
Utah's defense gave up a handful of plays over 15 yards; four in all totaling 94 yards. Minus those four plays, UCLA gains only 201 yards for the game.
"I knew we had a real good scheme. With the snow and stuff, we knew if we just got on top, we could just keep burying them," said linebacker-turned safety Brian Blechen, who had a team-high eight tackles on the night.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham continued to heap praise on the defensive side of the ball.
"The defense was outstanding. They've been outstanding for the entire season. They're not at, or near, the top of every defensive category for no reason," Whittingham praised. "They're playing well week in and week out. That's a great credit to our players, and the defensive staff."
Quarterback Jon Hays, who finished the night with a quiet, underwhelming-yet effective 5-13 for 67 yards and one touchdown indicated a comfort level associated with playing opposite the dominating Utah defense.
"With the defense we've got, if we can put up points, over twenty is enough," Hays said of his defensive teammates. "Guys are going to have a hard time scoring three times on our defense."
Utah puts the win streak on the line next week in Pullman, Washington Saturday when it meets Washington State, who has a high-powered offense despite a less than impressive 3-6, 1-5 win-loss record.