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Utah Football: 2019 Team Awards

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Utah Football: 2019 Team Awards

Utah Football: 2019 Team Awards

Utah climbed the mountain once again and planted a flag as the Pac-12 South champions for the second consecutive season.

A title game loss to Oregon offered a somber ending to an otherwise memorable regular season. The Utes won 11 games for the first time since going 13-0 and winning the Sugar Bowl in 2008. Utah put itself in contention for a College Football Playoff spot late in the season with help from an elite defense and an efficient offense.

Now the Utes look to close things out on a positive note when they face Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 31. Utah is 4-0 in bowl games in the state of Texas and has not lost consecutive bowl games since 1993.

Who stood out for Utah in 2019? What were the defining moments of the season for the Utes? Here's a quick snapshot at the regular season and what lies ahead for Utah in 2020:

Offensive MVP: Zack Moss, RB

Moss earned Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors after becoming the first Utah player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. He became the career leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, carries, 100-yard rushing games, and career touchdowns scored. Moss led the Pac-12 with 1,359 total rushing yards during the regular season and ranked second in yards per carry (6.2). The senior is truly the engine that powered Utah's offense.

Defensive MVP: Bradlee Anae, DE

Anae set the tone for a bruising defensive line that helped Utah lead the nation in rushing defense during the regular season. The 2019 Morris Trophy winner totaled 35 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, and 12.5 sacks during the regular season. Anae has 29.5 career sacks, which are tied for the school record and are fourth most among active FBS players.

Best Newcomer: Jordan Wilmore, RB

Replacing a running back as talented as Zack Moss is never a simple task. Still, Wilmore showed even in a limited role he is capable of being a worthy successor in the backfield. The freshman earned the No. 2 spot behind Moss coming out of fall camp and totaled 194 yards and a touchdown while averaging 4.0 yards per carry. He has the physical traits and running style to ultimately flourish in Utah's offense.

Best Play of the Season: Mika Tafua's fumble return vs. UCLA

Tafua changed the trajectory of Utah's 49-3 victory over the Bruins with a 68-yard fumble return late in the second quarter. The sophomore defensive end had the fourth-longest fumble return for a touchdown in school history and the first one by a Utah player since 2017.

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Best Performance by a Player: Tyler Huntley vs. UCLA

Huntley put together one of his most dominant performances of the season against UCLA. The senior threw for a season-high 335 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 14-of-18 passing against the Bruins. His effort helped the Utes earn their largest margin of victory in a Pac-12 game. It ended up being one of two 300-yard games for Huntley this season.

Best Game (Team Performance): Shutting down California

Utah's defense emerged as one of the nation's best all-around units as the season progressed. Perhaps, the signature moment came when the Utes blasted California 35-0. The Bears managed a meager 83 yards and averaged just 1.9 yards per play. It marked the first shutout win for Utah against a Pac-12 opponent since joining the league in 2011. The Utes held California to single-digit or negative yardage on five of nine possessions.

Defining Moment: Rallying to beat Washington in Seattle

Utah struggled with Washington for nearly three quarters and fell behind 21-13 midway through the third quarter following Jacob Eason's third touchdown pass. Then the Utes sprang to life when Jaylon Johnson returned an interception 39 yards to cut the deficit to two points. It marked the start of 20 unanswered points in an eventual 33-28 victory. Huntley threw for 284 yards to help Utah snap a four-game losing streak to the Huskies.

Biggest Surprise: Tyler Huntley, QB

Huntley was already a quality quarterback, but he absolutely flourished under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig during his senior season. Few quarterbacks in the nation could match the consistent accuracy and efficiency that Huntley brought to the field from game to game. He finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage (.737), passing efficiency (181.9), passing yards per completion (14.47), and yards per pass attempt (10.67).

Biggest Disappointment: Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon

Utah dominated one opponent after another to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game for a second consecutive season and then ran into a brick wall against the Ducks. Oregon dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and jumped out to a 20-point lead on the Utes before pulling away for a 37-15 victory. The Ducks pressured Tyler Huntley for the bulk of four quarters and piled up yards on the nation's No. 1 defense.

Senior That Will be Missed the Most: Julian Blackmon, FS

Blackmon, a three-time All-Pac-12 selection, quietly grew into a key leader for the defensive backfield. He tied for first in the Pac-12 with four interceptions in the regular season. The senior also has four pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles to his credit. Blackmon has registered 60 tackles, including 4.0 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. He made the switch from cornerback to safety before the season and excelled in his new role.

Player to Watch in 2020: Brant Kuithe, TE

Near the end of the season, Kuithe emerged as the top threat in the receiving game for Utah. The sophomore finished the regular season as the team's top receiver with 572 yards and six touchdowns on 31 catches. Kuithe has the speed and size (6-2, 235) to be a major mismatch for defenders. The Utes utilized those traits in tight end sweep packages that also helped Kuithe rack up three rushing touchdowns. He is poised to be a major star as a junior and has a potential NFL future on the horizon.

Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who will step up in the secondary?

Four starters and five seniors will depart from the defensive backfield after the Alamo Bowl. Javelin Guidry is the lone starter expected to return in 2020. Utah must replace standouts like Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon – not an easy task given their impact on the field. The Utes do have talent and depth at cornerback and safety, but they are light on experience. That could be problematic next fall in a pass-happy league like the Pac-12.

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.