PASADENA, California — Fun in the Pac-12 can be spelled with a block U.
"It's a great time out there," linebacker Cody Barton said through a Cheshire grin following Utah's 41-10 rout of UCLA last Friday at the Rose Bowl.
From the Bay Area to Los Angeles and home in Salt Lake City, Utah's been the Pac-12's weekly party-starter for the past month. The blowout of UCLA concluded an October that opened with a dominant performance at Stanford, with double-digit-point wins over Arizona and USC in between.
Utah held the four to a combined 69 points, 17.25 points per game, through predictably stingy defensive performances. Linebackers Barton and Chase Hansen fly to the ball, defensive end Bradlee Anae bursts off the edge to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, defensive tackle Leki Fotu physically intimidates in the trenches, all while All-American punter Mitch Wishnowsky sets the table with precisely placed boots.
Defense and special teams working concert with each other is nothing out of the ordinary for Utah under head coach Kyle Whittingham. Such has been the defining trait for the program in his tenure, which, at 14 seasons, is the longest among Pac-12 coaches at one program. Eight have been spent in the conference where, despite initial growing pains, Utah's one of only four programs to finish above .500 each season since 2014.
The difference between Utah and the others in that club — Stanford, USC and Washington — is that it's the only one yet to win the Pac-12 in that time. The Utes have not even had the opportunity to play in the conference championship game as the only South team yet to win the division.
But with a group that Whittingham described as both "fun to watch," and "fun to coach," that's on course to change. Utah entered Week 9 tied with four teams in the loss column in the South. The Utes dispatched one in UCLA. A day of chaos throughout the Pac-12 resulted in USC — against which Utah already owned a tiebreaker — falling to Arizona State, and Colorado suffering a stunning setback against Oregon State.
The Utes now sit in first place all alone, needing only to win out to make their way to Santa Clara. Doing so means bucking the trend of disappointing Novembers, as Utah has finished 13-15 in the month since joining the Pac-12. Heartbreaking losses in 2015 and '16 removed the Utes from the championship chase.
Not fun times if you're a Ute. But if there's any indication 2018 will be different, it's that this Utah team already looks dramatically different than squads of recent years past. The evolution of an offense with four consecutive outputs of at least 40 points has transformed the smash-mouth Utes into arguably the most entertaining team on the #Pac12AfterDark lineup.
"Our defense and special teams has been consistent," Whittingham said. "Now you have an offense that’s feeling really good about themselves."
The confidence is justified. No Utah team hit 40-plus four games consecutively since the undefeated 2004 squad with Alex Smith at quarterback and Urban Meyer as head coach. Meyer left The U West for Florida the following offseason, turning the reins over to Whittingham before the 2005 campaign.
Utah has flourished in the years since, and done so with an identity reflective of the coach. It's been 37 years since he won Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year at BYU, but Whittingham looks like he could throw on shoulder pads and a helmet today to rack up 10 tackles at linebacker.
His demeanor isn't fire-and-brimstone, but soft-spoken doesn't describe Whittingham, either. Watch how the Utah defense flies to the ball, hits hard and doesn't miss assignments, and one gets an idea that the coach's background and personality shape the style.
The entertaining exhibition Utah's put on lately reflects Whittingham, too, in its own way. The coach has never been the quirky soundbite type, but his Monday #AskWhitt Twitter Q&As are some of the most fun interactions a Power 5 head has with the fans.
But, as Whittingham points out, players ultimately shape the identity and the fortunes of a team.
"The positive is we have settled in as a team into who we are," Whittingham said. "We are doing a great job of getting the ball to our playmakers. College football is all about players and it's great to see."
The abundance of playmakers elevating their performance now has made Utah must-see-TV, in part because of the unpredictability. After enduring years of injury and misfortune at the quarterback position — virtually every season since Brian Johnson led the 2008 Utes — Tyler Huntley's rapid progression into a dual-threat star fuels the Utes' offense.
Huntley threw four touchdown passes in the Oct. 20 rout of USC, each to a different pass catcher in a stat indicative of the unit's depth.
In the same vein, Utah's lone touchdown pass at UCLA came not from Huntley, however, but wide receiver Britain Covey. Covey's seven-yard toss to tight end Cole Fotheringham ignited a 28-point run for the Utes that spanned almost 19 minutes of game time.
"I like it, because trick-play passes are high percentage," Covey said.
That may not always be the case, but it seems to be when Covey's passing. He completed two passes for 64 yards and a touchdown on Oct. 12 against Arizona, and the threat of him throwing last Friday resulted in the UCLA defense biting on a pump-fake before ripping off a 19-yard run.
"It's hard," said Burton, who sees the evolving Utah offense every day in practice. "Because you know if you run up on Cov, he's going to dump it over the top of you. If you give him space, like they did in the game, he scurried for like 20 or something yards. We know when Cov gets the ball, get ready for something."
The highlight-reel plays Covey's demonstrated a propensity for breaking function as a result of time-tested football; the kind of offense that proponents of tradition and physicality consider fun viewing. Utah has that, too, in Zack Moss.
Moss rushed for 211 yards on Friday with three touchdowns, improving to No. 7 in the nation at 120.5 yards per game. The threat of Moss gobbling up chunks of yards (and carrying would-be tacklers with him) opens the field for offensive coordinator Troy Taylor to get creative in his play calls.
"You sell the run," Whittingham said of the effective wide receiver passes the week after the Arizona win. "It's more field position for us than defensive structure... We have those special plays — some people call them gadgets — they're designed to be run from a certain hash mark, usually, and a certain position on the field. We got in that spot, dialed it up, and had a good result."
So long as Utah continues to have some fun, the good results should continue.
(Top photo courtesy of @Utah_Football)