The Utah football team (4-5, 2-4) came out swinging on a perfect fall Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, laying a 49-6 drubbing on visiting Washington State. The message sent was loud and clear: "We're not giving up."
It was perfect timing, because the Utes had no choice but to win in order to keep any hope of going to a bowl game alive. The even better news is that it was a classic team win.
"The whole team's feeding off of each other. I feed off the defense when they're making plays, the offense, the crowd," explained Reggie Dunn. "This win goes to everybody: the fans, the offense, defense, coaching staff, family. It's just everybody."
"It was a good effort all around, and we needed it. Our backs were to the wall, and will be all the rest of the way," observed head coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's the approach we've got to take, and keep fighting our way out of the corner. That's our mentality."
Ute fans knew something good was in the works, when running back John White broke a 47 yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, putting the Utes up 7-0. After a slow start to the season after battling nagging health problems, the season-high run was a welcome sight for sore eyes, which helped carry him to a 96 yard first half performance.
White ran for 101 yards on 18 carries, almost guaranteeing a Utah win, as the team is 11-0 when he rushes over the century mark. He also caught an 18-yard Travis Wilson pass for a touchdown right before the half to put the Utes up 31-0.
"John White is healthy now, back-to-back 100 yard games. He put together another one today, so the record stays in tact," said Whittingham. "When he goes for a hundred, we win. I guess that's something we should pay attention to, as coaches. The proof is right there."
True freshman Travis Wilson continued his progress and maturation Saturday, completing almost 81 percent of his passes hitting on 17 of 21 attempts and two touchdowns and rushed for 21 yards on four carries.
"Each of [Wilson's] four successive starts, I feel he's gotten better, in succession," praised Whittingham.
While the offense was a huge positive Saturday, Ute special teams also showed up as Reggie Dunn set another NCAA record as he returned a kick for another 100 yards, and a touchdown to open up the second half.
"I just thank God for giving me the opportunity to play college football, my coaches and my kickoff return team. They blocked so well, so it's not just me," credited Dunn. "I just thank all those guys, and Coach Jay Hill for coming up with great schemes every week. It was fun."
According to Dunn, he knew the big run was coming.
"Before I went out there, I could see it in my kick return team's eyes. They were just ready. They were just like, 'let's make this happen again'," he said. "We knew weren't going to get that many opportunities, so we just wanted to make the one we had count."
Ute punters also had big performances Saturday, as Sean Sellwood booted two punts for an average of 58 yards, and a long of 62. Australian Tom Hackett also made another splash, punting in short field situations to average 46.5 yards per punt. The pair played a crucial role in pinning the struggling Cougar offense deep in their own territory, limiting their offensive options against an aggressive Utah defense.
While the contributions of the Ute offense and special teams were huge, the story Saturday was Kalani Sitake's defense.
Coming into the game, many worried about a Ute secondary which hasn't been consistent through its first eight games. Known for pulling out a game-changing defensive scheme when the Utes most need it, the Utah defensive coaching staff did just that Saturday.
"Great job by [the defensive coaching staff]. They came up with a nice odd package that we slid into some even fronts out of that odd package, but it was essentially a nickel secondary, three down, three backers. A thirty-three scheme, and it created some issues for their protection," explained Whittingham of the defensive adjustments Utah made Saturday.
The result was a season-high six sacks and kept constant pressure on Washington State Jeff Tuel all day long, severely altering his normally productive game performance.
Wazzu came into Rice-Eccles Stadium averaging 365.6 ypg, and came away with just 255 yards of total offense. As the Pac-12's second leading pass offense, averaging 332.4 ypg, Washington State came away with only 259 yards against a Utah secondary who was without senior starting corner Ryan Lacy. In his place, senior transfer Lewis Walker stepped in and was solid in coverage, barely missing a beat.
"Those guys stepped up, and we never talk about injuries but we've had a lot of guys go down this year. It's just next man up mentality, the next guy in picks up the slack. That's just how we operate," explained Whittingham. "Without Ryan Lacy, it gave Lewis Walker to be the full-time guy this afternoon. Moe Lee played another good football game. Reggie Topps, another good game. The safeties are playing well, but I'm very pleased with how the secondary is playing. It's a couple weeks in a row where we're playing pretty stingy pass defense."
Senior Reggie Topps continued his under-the-radar, yet stellar play Saturday, leading the team with seven tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and an interception complete with a 21 yard return, which set up a Utah field goal that increased the lead 24-0.
"I don't even keep count, I'm just out here having fun. Seven tackles? That's great," said the humble Topps. "I'm trying to improve for next week, I just have to keep moving. The interception felt great to finally get one in the season. I'm going to try to get a couple more before I get out of here."
Four of Utah's top five tacklers for the game were members of the secondary, with senior Moe Lee with six and two pass break ups, Brian Blechen with four andLewis Walker with four.
"We were only bringing three or four, and were still able to get pressure, giving the defensive backs a good chance for pass break ups and interceptions," said senior nickel Reggie Topps.
Linebacker in a defensive end's clothing Trevor Reilly had five tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss and one pass break up.
On the ground, Wazzu found itself in the red, no pun intended, netting negative 4 yards on the game on just eight carries. Washington State converted just two third down conversions, went 0-2 on fourth down conversions and had just a singular red zone opportunity in the entire game.
The one blemish on Utah's otherwise perfect defensive performance was the touchdown Washington State scored with :01 remaining in regulation play, which was made possible because of an unsportsmanlike penalty on backup linebacker Nick Brown. The foul moved Washington State up from the Utah 11 yard line to the Utah 5 yard line after two consecutive incompletions by Wazzu.
The Utes, pleased with the win and overall performances said, however, that the last-second score nagged at them.
"One second left on the clock, and they got [the touchdown]," said defensive end Joe Kruger. "We were pretty disappointed. But it's alright, we killed them."