The Utah Utes football team came into Saturday night’s game against Cal smarting from four consecutive Pac-12 Conference losses.
It should, considering the Utes did the same losing thing last year — before reeling off several consecutive wins to become bowl eligible.
In a 49-27 win over the Golden Bears the Utes (now 3-5 overall, 1-4 Pac-12) did a few things well.
Again it was the Utes special teams and defense, the same units that roared out to 14 straight points against USC who started hot.
Of course, if you remember the game against the Trojans you also recall that the Utes lost.
Reggie Dunn ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, then Reggie Topps topped it off on the next Cal drive by scooping up quarterback Zach Maynard’s fumble and taking it to the house for a 17-yard score.
Lest you thought that was all, folks — which was certainly the deal in the loss to the Trojans — it was not.
Cal bookended the Utes’ first quarter scores with field goals to cut the Utah lead to 14-6 entering the second quarter.
The Utes, who brought young offensive coordinator Brian Johnson down field side from his usual spot in the press box, responded by dinking and dunking down the field, mixed in with a few running plays.
Utah’s first punt was a beauty, driving Cal all the way back to its 2 — and the good field position paid off on the next Ute drive, which began in enemy territory at the Bears 49.
It took 2:58 for the Utes to work the ball down the field, as quarterback Travis Wilson ran for two first downs and wide receiver Dres Anderson ran for another on a reverse to set up a Kelvin York plunge from 1-yard out to give Utah a 21-6 lead with 6:41 to play in the first half.
To that point, the Utes used a mixture of running and short passing plays, as Johnson elected to give the freshman Wilson less leash to hang himself with — reminding many of the constraints ex-OC Norm Chow placed on Jon Hays last season during the Utes’ late push to the Sun Bowl.
No play was longer than 13 yards but the balanced offense seemed to be working — and when Maynard threw an interception to Ute cornerback Ryan Lacy who returned the ball to the Cal 24, the Utes were not only in business, they were in complete control.
York went back to work as though he were the Utes leading rusher, pounding the ball seven times into a tired Cal defense that had been on the field for over 20 minutes of a 30-minute first half.
When Wilson punctuated the drive with 16 seconds to go before halftime with a 5-yard scamper, hopes were high that the all-black Utes — who had not won a conference game in 2012 — would do so in front of 45,017 blacked-out fans in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
After the teams went to their locker rooms for half the John White show began in earnest. Donning his tried and true No. 15, the Utes captain seemed a wonderful shell of his old self, blasting through holes that York helped create earlier, for a first down.
“It’s the same thing every week. We always switch off. I love Kelvin [York]. He runs hard. We’re thunder and lightning,” said White.
Two plays later Wilson found wide receiver Luke Matthews in stride for a 41-yard gain which took the Utes to the Cal 10.
Then it was White — who had been nursing a bad ankle — who darted through for a 10-yard touchdown, just his third on the year.
With only 518 yards on the ground this season, Ute fans surely hope that White gets his mojo back — with so much on the line for the senior and his squad.
He would tack on another touchdown towards the end of the third to give the Utes a 42-6 lead, the most points Utah had ever scored in a Pac-12 game in its short history in the conference.
Cal responded with surgical precision from Maynard on the next two drives, cuttting the Utes lead to 42-20 — but 22 points was close as the Golden Bears (3-6, 1-4) would get.
Between the two Cal touchdowns, another Reggie — Reggie Dunn — would give the Utes 49 points with another 100-yard kickoff return.
This night belonged to the much-maligned Utes, the team many had left for dead after several uninspiring performances.
“It was good to get a win without a doubt. It’s been a while. It was good to see our offense come out and be productive,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “The defense played well for three and a half quarters. We got soft there at the end, but I’m very proud of the players and coaches. We worked and put a great plan together. Dunn had a huge impact on the game with his two kickoff returns for touchdowns.”
And though the offense — which still struggled on Saturday night, combining for just 344 yards to Cal’s 441 — White has re-emerged from the shadows as a primary weapon, rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
Wilson may have had an off night, throwing for 156 yards and one pick, but John White is back.
“I was just driving legs and making sure I got that extra yard. We just had to keep pounding the defense and it would open up the defense eventually,” said White. “Cal was doing everything they showed during the season and we just took advantage and got after it on the ground.”
Frankly, that’s all the good news Ute fans needed to hear, with a winnable game coming up against Washington State before traveling to Seattle to face a Washington team that upset No. 7 Oregon State today.
A healthy White and mistake-free Utah team — which committed just one turnover Saturday and had its defense force three — may make the difference between going bowling, or staying home.
“We took care of the football for the most part. We had the one interception, it was an incorrect route that was run. That was why it looked so off,” said Whittingham. “The defense did a nice job creating takeaways and put our offense in some short-field situations, which needed to happen. We haven’t done that this year either so it was good to see that happen.”
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