On the anniversary of a landmark moment in Utah football history, the Utes aim for another milestone
Before the 2018 season kicked off, I asked Utah linebacker Chase Hansen about this autumn marking the 10-year anniversary of the Utes completing the only undefeated campaign in college football with a Sugar Bowl defeat of Alabama.
"I didn’t even know that, to be honest," Hansen said.
Forgive Hansen or any other Ute player who did not immediately know this was the Tin Anniversary for a golden season in Utah history; the current roster members were just kids at the time. Head coach Kyle Whittingham remembers it, however. That season (2008) was his fourth as Utah head coach, and his 13th in the program in any capacity.
Whittingham's remained at Utah for the decade since, a veritable lifetime in college football years. To wit, consider the changes that occurred around the program in that duration:
- Utah received an invite to the then-Pac-10 Conference in 2010, and became an official member in 2011.
- Pac-12 South counterparts Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and USC replaced coaches Mike Stoops, Dennis Erickson, Jon Embree, Rick Neuheisel and Lane Kiffin.
- College football adopted a playoff system, the wheels of which were set in motion by the antitrust lawsuit the Mountain West Conference initiated in part due to the 2008 Utes being denied a national championship opportunity.
- Pac-12 South counterparts Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA and USC replaced coaches Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Mike MacIntyre, Jim Mora and Steve Sarkisian.
Much has changed, indeed — but not necessarily Whittingham.
"I don’t think I’ve changed much as far as personal philosophies and styles," he said. "I feel like I’ve always been a guy who tries to run the ball effectively and tries to stop the run on defense, try to turn teams one-dimensional with defense."
It's an approach that's proven successful, producing bowl appearances in all but two seasons over the past 14. Whittingham's style made its splashiest impact in 2008, when the Utes ranked No. 12 nationally in points allowed (17.2), and grinded out 24 rushing touchdowns to set the tone offensively. Deeming 2008 instrumental in landing Utah in the Pac-12 would be fair — but it wasn't the only season that made the Utes attractive football invitees.
"Not only that season," Whittingham noted, "But the ’04 season when we went undefeated and played on the national stage in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a culmination of a lot of good things that happened in our program that got us that invite. What I think that speaks to is the amount of good players we’ve had come through here."
Those "good players" in the latter Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West days include names like Jamal Anderson, Alex Smith, Morgan Scalley, Eric Weddle, Brian Johnson. Notable talents continue to pass through in the Pac-12 era, like Star Lotulelei, Devontae Booker, Eric Rowe.
Yet, amid all the tumult and change around college football in general and the Pac-12 specifically, Utah's consistency included an unsightly footnote: Only Pac-12 South team never to play in the conference championship game.
As of Friday, you can cross that last bulletpoint off the list. The Utes shed a dubious distinction on Nov. 17, starting the day with a rout of Colorado and ending it as South division champions, courtesy of Oregon's 31-29 win over Arizona State. Ten years after a Whittingham-coached Utah team reached a major milestone, another has a similar opportunity at Levi's Stadium on Friday night against Washington.
At stake is a berth in the Rose Bowl Game, long the most coveted prize a member from any iteration of the current Pac-12 Conference can claim. Having this one-game opportunity to play in the Granddaddy of 'Em All signifies an important moment in the evolution of Utah football, because doing so meant defying a vexing trend.
The 2018 Utes weren't the first to harbor realistic Rose Bowl aspirations since they joined the Pac-12 seven years ago. They were in the hunt in 2014, '15 and '16, but November losses in all three seasons denied Utah a divisional crown.
"We just need to be able to make plays in the closer games that we lost," said Hansen before the season, in response to how Utah could reverse its past conference-title race misfortunes. "We just have to make a few more plays, because it’s always tight in the Pac."
The race was certainly tight again this year, and the Utes' first game of November felt like more of the same story. After taking control of the divisional lead with a perfect October — which included blowout wins over Arizona, USC and at UCLA — Utah trailed Arizona State by a point in the second half. That's when quarterback Tyler Huntley sustained a left collarbone break.
The Sun Devils rolled off the game's final 17 points, in the process gaining the inside track to the Pac-12 Championship Game. And that was before running back Zack Moss, already over 1,000 yards rushing on the season with 11 touchdowns, went down with a knee injury that was the result of a pre-existing condition that was triggered by getting out of bed.
Forget Murphy's Law: An offense built on establishing the run losing both its running back, and a quarterback coming into his own after years of injuries limited other Utes at the question, the theory could be renamed Swoop's Law.
But in winning their next three games, including vital conference matchups with Oregon and Colorado, the Utes demonstrated two qualities that Whittingham touts as defining in their championship pursuit. One is their "resilience." The other and more easily quantifiable is the establishment of roster depth through recruiting success.
In its first four years after accepting an invitation from the erstwhile Pac-12, Utah averaged a No. 47-ranked recruiting class per 247Sports' composite rankings, and fewer than two 4-star prospects per signing class.
The Utes average a national rank of No. 37 in the past four recruiting cycles, with multiple 4-star signees in each of the last three classes. More highly rated individual recruits are delivering, whether it's starting left tackle Jackson Barton, defensive end Maxs Tupai, safety Marquise Blair or cornerback Jaylon Johnson. And then the overall quality of recent signing classes makes an impact through the contributions of a reverse called upon to step up, like former 3-star prospect and redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley.
Shelley threw three touchdowns without an interception in his final two starts and rushed for a third. He also broke off a run against BYU sure to appear in any highlight package from the rivalry for generations to come.
Meanwhile, Armand Shyne returned to the starting rotation for the first time in more than two years after Moss was sidelined and produced games with 174 yards against Oregon; and two touchdowns against BYU.
As Whittingham noted, Utah's had its share of "good players" for years and years. In Shelley and Shyne, it's evident Utah now just has more of them, and that's the difference in finally competing for a Pac-12 championship.
"Back then in ’08, we weren’t in the Pac-12," Whittingham said. "Getting into the Pac-12 was a huge challenge. It took us a few years to start catching up, just from an athletic standpoint. We feel like we’ve closed that gap considerably."
"They're all good players," said Washington head coach Chris Petersen, providing an opponent perspective on the depth Utah's cultivated, especially on defense. "One reason they're playing for this title is because you see all the same guys we saw early on — and if they're not, if it's one or two different guys, they've played better. They've upgraded."
An upgrade for Utah football a decade ago became a literal one, manifesting in affiliation with a power conference and all that entails — such as opportunities at the Rose Bowl. Like 2008, which Hansen described as a "crazy-cool team" that was "a lot of fun to watch," the 2018 Utes have been fun in their own right. And Friday, they can make history, just like their predecessors a decade ago.