A simple headline proved difficult to obtain for Utah as it has suffered season-ending injury after season-ending injury, offensive woes, and periodic, inexplicable special teams and defensive breakdowns throughout the unfamiliar sub-.500 season. It took eight weeks, four conference losses, 17 turnovers, three quarterbacks, and thousands of questions, but Utah recorded it's first-ever Pac 12 win 27-8 Saturday night at a blacked-out Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"Nice to get the first Pac-12 win. It took us more tries than I would have liked, but we ended up getting it," said an obviously relieved Kyle Whittingham.
Oregon State fell to 2-6 and 2-3 in Pac-12 play, proved to be the perfect guest for the Utes who were sorely in need of a win. For the first time since Montana State, the background music to the post-game press conference was set to the boisterous celebration of the Utes singing Utah Man and chanting "Mo Lee!" versus the usual celebratory sounds emanating from the visiting locker room.
After grabbing its first Pac-12 win, Utah, who improved to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in conference play, is looking forward to building on it and using the momentum to accumulate more wins, rather than focusing their singular, and first.
"We were eager to turn it around, and we knew this was the game to do it. We owe it to ourselves, the coaches, our fans, and I mean with the blackout and everything, this was the game to do it," Blechen explained. "We want to keep winning, and we want to start building a winning streak."
Blechen would again reference the home crowd, and the blackout as potential factors in the win, citing that either could have played into the Utes' pre-game mind-set. Or perhaps, it was simply that the Utes were just plain tired of losing. Either way, Blechen indicated that he and his teammates felt that something was different going into Saturday's game.
"You can't really explain it, but there was just something in the air, you could feel it. Everybody was focused, you could see in your teammates' eyes," he said. "We've had so much losing, we're sick of it. So tonight, I could just see the fire, and feel it."
Defensive standout Tevita Finau agreed.
"I guess we just finally decided we needed a Pac-12 win," Finau said immediately after the win directly in front of the raucous Muss. "It means a lot to get it at home. These fans, they deserve for us to put it all out there, and play our best, so this one's for the fans that stuck by us the last few weeks. With the black out and everything, everyone's here and we knew we could do it, and tonight was the night to do it."
Junior quarterback Jon Hays who has taken heat since he took over the reigns as QB1 finally shook the proverbial monkey off his back, throwing confidently from the pocket and taking care of the ball, committing zero turnovers for the first time in his career at Utah.
"Coach Chow's been around a long time. He's been great all week, and I didn't really focus on any of the negative things and tried to stay away from the papers," said Hays of his mind-set and preparation in the week preceding his first conference victory as a starter. "He just calmed down, and I went out there and had fun tonight, and it's a great feeling."
Hays would finish the night with 62 yards on 6-14 passing and two touchdowns. The most important stat on Hays' line was the 0 following his passing stats, signifying zero interceptions. Hays opened the night with a long ball to a wide open, streaking Devonte Christopher, who could not catch up with the slightly over-thrown ball, which would have gone for a touchdown if caught.
On the play, and throughout the night, Christopher did not appear to be 100% after returning from an ankle injury that side-lined him for the past two weeks, something head coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed post-game.
"He's not 100%. We think he might about 80% and we'll look for him to improve as we go on," said Whittingham.
While Hays' performance wasn't awe-inspiring, he did all he had to do between the Ute defense playing as well as it has, and the running of John White, it was all the Utes asked him to do coming in.
"He managed the game, that's the best way to describe what Jon did tonight. He did a nice job managing the offense. We didn't put a lot on his plate and we didn't ask him to make a bunch of plays," Whittingham said of Jon Hays' Saturday performance. "We scaled things back from what we've done the past couple of weeks. We gave him fewer things to think about, and fewer reads to make, and I think it paid off."
The Utes can afford to take things off Hays' plate as long as running back John White continues to perform as he did Saturday. White, once again the work-horse for the Utah offense, rushed 35 times for 205 yards to re-take the Pac-12 rushing lead Saturday on a perfect autumn night. White's performance was the first 200+ yard rushing game by any Ute since Marty Johnson did it in 2002 versus Indiana, where he rushed for 202 yards.
"A big performance for John White. It was huge; 200 yards on 35 carries," Whittingham said. "Another heavy-duty workload for John. Credit the offensive line as well, they were opening up some big holes in the first half."
After a questionable, if not dismal performance in a loss at Cal last Saturday, the offensive line also had something to prove against Oregon State, and responded in kind. Whittingham credited the execution of the offensive line, as well as the coaching job done by Tim Davis and Dave Schramm.
"It was a nice job with the block schemes. I think Dave Schramm and Tim Davis, who put the run game together each week, did a nice job with their schemes," Whittingham explained.
To the surprise of many, Oregon State also did not load the box, or attempt to shut the Utes' run game down as Cal and Arizona State did before them; another big factor in the success of the run game.
"I was surprised they didn't load the box up like some of the teams we've faced recently have done," explained Whittingham. "They stayed pretty much in their base stuff they've been playing all season long."
Field goal kicker Coleman Petersen came through again for the Utes, converting on two of two attempts from 48 and 20 yards respectively. Petersen's first field goal of the night represented Utah's first points of the game as the Utah offense took advantage of good field position from a defensive stand that saw Oregon State miss a 50 yard field goal attempt.
"It's great. I've been able to hit from distance before, so I knew I could hit that first one," Petersen said. "I've been kicking really smoothly and well in practice, so I've been a lot more confident in my game."
Hays and the offense would drive 37 yards in eight plays on the strength of two Hays rushes accounting for 27 yards before attempting the Petersen field goal, which is his collegiate career long, besting his previous 45 yarder at Pitt.
Defensively, the night was much easier after not having to play from behind, or put in tough positions by the offense. Sometimes defensive end and sometimes defensive tackle Tevita Finau had a huge night with three sacks for a total of 29 yards for loss, and the entire Ute defense came up with six sacks on the night, good for negative 56 yards.
A quiet, unassuming Finau took no credit for his performance.
"I just got lucky. It was just open for me, and I took advantage," he said on the field immediately post-game.
In formal post-game interviews, he would credit his defensive line teammates Star Lotulelei and Derrick Shelby.
"I think they paid attention more to Star and Shelby, and I was just over there running around," Finau credited. "Right place, right time."
The secondary looked to have a potentially big night as Oregon State tended to be pass-heavy, considering freshman quarterback Sean Mannion came in as the Pac-12's Offensive Player of the Week after a 26 - 34 (76.5%), 376 yard, four touchdown, performance against Washington State last Saturday. Mannion's average prior to running into a hungry Utah defense was 315.4 yards per game.
While there were many opportunities for interceptions, the first came after the midway point in the second quarter as corner Mo Lee picked off a Mannion pass, returning it for 30 yards all the way to the Oregon State 18 yard line, resulting in a seven points and a 17-0 Utah lead.
On the other side, Ryan Lacy also stepped in front of a Mannion toss early in the second half, but the Ute offense would ultimately squander the opportunity and were forced to punt after a quick three-and-out.
Senior linebacker Matt Martinez was responsible for the final Mannion interception, and ultimately for icing the game as the Beavers had gathered some momentum after scoring a quick eight points in the course of five minutes.
Utah's defense had shut out the Beavers, forcing a 35-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter, but a foolish roughing the kicker penalty by Reggie Topps provided another a first down and a half the distance to the goal situation for Oregon State; a mistake that would result in a touchdown.
Oregon State attempted a two-point conversion, which failed, leaving the score 24-6 in Utah's favor with 14:55 to go in the game. Oregon State kicker Trevor Romaine booted the kickoff 70 yards for a touchback, putting Utah on their own 20. After no gain by Jon Hays, running backJohn White would cough up the ball on a rushing attempt that was sniffed out and thrown for a loss.
Suddenly the momentum swung, and Oregon State looked like it was in business with a 1st and 10 at the Utah 12 yard line. The Utah defense would come up huge, however, as linebacker Chaz Walker forced a fumble at the goal line, as Malcolm Agnew left his feet and attempted to dive over the pile. Trevor Reilly, seemingly in the right place at the right time more often than not, recovered the fumble, saving the touchdown and returning the ball to the Ute offense.
"That was huge. One thing we haven't done [well with] as a defense is sudden change. If the offense turns it over or something like that, we haven't been making the stops that we always talk about," Blechen said of the goal line fumble his defensive teammates forced. "So when [Oregon State] came out and started marching, for someone to get, to force that fumble on the two was huge."
Though Oregon State would score two points on a safety, the offense never could recover from the costly goal-line fumble. In it's ensuing fourth quarter possessions, Oregon State punted, threw an interception turned the ball over on downs, accomplishing next to nothing for the remainder of the game.
While shedding the sting and the stench of their conference losing streak, Utah still has some wrinkles yet to iron out. In the first half, Utah accumulated 57 passing yards, but only five in the entire second half, while in the run game Utah massed 178 rushing yards, but were held to 47 in the second half. The numbers are an indication that Utah still isn't making an adequate half-time adjustment, or response to those of their opponents after the half.
Number one for the Utes, however, was winning the turnover battle for the first time in four conference games, ending the night +3, which is what the Utah offense needs to do as part of the formula to win, considering the strength of the Utah defense.
Kalani Sitake's squad held Oregon State to 263 total yards with just 32 rushing yards, and Mannion to 231 passing yards, well under his 314.5 average yards per game.
"We've got a great defense, so we've just got to go out and keep the turnovers to a minimum," the Utes' first quarterback to ever notch a Pac-12 win said. "They're going to keep us in any game, with any team in the nation."
The Utes look to build on the all-important first win Saturday at Arizona, who sits at 1-4 in conference play and 2-5 overall, pending the result of the contest against Washington, which remains a tight ball game well into the fourth quarter at the time of publication.