Home, Sweet Home: Utah Football Is Getting Comfortable in the Pac-12

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Utah football may not have been the first flag-bearer for college football’s outsiders during the BCS era, but the Utes perhaps more than any other program really took up the mantle in the 2000s.

The Utes added notches in their belt at the expense of plenty of college football’s big boys, most notably Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Utah’s win there was only the second a non-BCS conference program scored in one of the top-tier postseason games; the first was Utah’s 2005 Fiesta Bowl in over Pittsburgh.

Along the way to setting the bar for all of the non-BCS teams, Utah collected plenty of game blouses from opponents in the conference formerly known as the Pac-10. Between 2004 and 2010, the Utes scored the following wins over Pac-12 competition:

2004: 23-6 @ Arizona
2005: 27-24 vs. Arizona
2007: 44-6 vs. UCLA
2008: 31-28 vs. Oregon State
2009: 37-27 vs. Cal (Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego)

Its success both on the national level and against the Pac-10 helped Utah land one of the two invitations to expand the Pac-10 to the Pac-12.

The Utes’ arrival in the newly branded league before the 2011 season promised to answer the oft-repeated question, How would one of the top BCS busters fare in a power conference?

The answer? Not so well.

Put bluntly, “every week’s difficult in the Pac-12,” as Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Whittingham’s team discovered just how difficult immediately.

Utah finished below .500 in Pac-12 play each of its first three seasons in the conference. Whittingham’s repeatedly discussed over the last three years the challenge of facing a Pac-12 schedule on a weekly basis, in particular the talent disparity that became evident.

Bridging the talent gap was a point of emphasis following finishes of 4-5 and 3-6 in conference play in 2011 and 2012.

“We’ve made strides. Certainly our roster from 1-to-85…is more talented than [it’s] been in recent years,” Whittingham said.

After missing a bowl game for the first time in a decade in 2012, Utah seemed to have made the leap in 2013. An upset of defending league champion Stanford last October pushed the Utes to 4-2 and back into the national spotlight–but the stage was fleeting.

Utah lost its next five, only coming out of the tailspin with a season-ending defeat of Colorado.

The losing streak wasn’t necessarily a reflection of Utah failing to improve upon where it was as a program during its Mountain West tenure. Rather, the Utes were trapped in the same predicament each of the 11 other Pac-12 programs currently face.

“I’ve said this over and over, the Pac-12 has gotten better at the same time,” Whittingham said. “Everybody’s getting better. It’s a matter of how fast you can improve.”

Whittingham hasn’t simply had to beef up the roster; he’s also had to tinker with his coaching staff. Offensive coordinators have gone through a revolving door at Utah since joining the Pac-12, with former Sugar Bowl-winning quarterback Brian Johnson, Dennis Erickson and now Dave Christensen all manning the post.

Utah’s offense remains a work in progress under Christensen, but the team’s signature win of 2014–a 30-28 upset of then-No. 8 UCLA–showed signs that perhaps its found its answer.

Quarterback Travis Wilson was replaced by Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson in the first half, and Thompson’s addition to the lineup got the Utes moving on the ground to the tune of 242 yards.

Thompson had 83 and gave the UCLA defense enough of a varied look that it alleviated some pressure on running back Devontae Booker. Booker broke out for 156 yards and caught the attention of one of the Pac-12’s top defenders.

With Thompson and Booker taking the first steps toward bringing Christensen’s vision to life, the Utah defense was free to do what it does best: Get into the backfield.

The Pac-12’s top run defense held UCLA to just 2.7 yards per rush and made preseason Heisman Trophy favorite quarterback Brett Hundley’s night very difficult. Hundley was sacked 10 times, four of which were by defensive end Nate Orchard.

“I said at the very beginning of fall camp that if we’re going to be any good on defense, Nate Orchard needs to be a force off the edge,” Whittingham said. “That’s certainly happened through five games.”

And how. Thanks to his output at UCLA, Orchard now leads the nation with 8.5 sacks on the year.

“He was the player of the game in-house,” Whittingham said. “He was also , I understand, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.”

That’s not all that came Orchard’s way this week. On Tuesday, the Football Writers Association of America named him the Bronko Nagurski Award National Defensive Player of the Week, an honor that also puts Orchard on the watch list for the honor given to the nation’s top defender at season’s end.

Orchard played a similarly key role in Utah’s upset of Stanford last season, sacking Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan twice and forcing a pair of fumbles. In July at Pac-12 media days, I talked to him about beating the conference’s champion juxtaposed with the losing streak that followed.

“That’s something we should have done week-by-week, but the inconsistency was very frustrating,” he said.

Using his frustration as motivation, Orchard is taking charge to avoid another letdown following this year’s upset of a Top 10-ranked opponent. With him as its leader, the Utah defense is fast establishing itself as one for Pac-12 opponents to fear–and it’s also earned one of the better nicknames.

Wide receiver Dres Anderson is another Ute who played a big role in the wins over Stanford and UCLA, catching a touchdown in each contest. Anderson expressed the same frustration and disappointment Orchard spoke of this offseason.

“This university prides itself on going to bowl games,” he said. “Not being to make it to one is like, c’mon now. We’re better than that.”

Anderson is one of the few remaining holdovers who was in the program during Utah’s last Mountain West season. He’s been there through every step in its evolution, and as such, said he would take great pride in helping get the Utes back to national prominence.

And of course, some of that coming at UCLA, where his dad and uncle played football, has to be doubly sweet for Anderson.

Anderson is actually one of 31 Utes who enjoyed a welcoming homecoming to Southern California. The talent-rich region is a necessary pipeline for every Pac-12 program, and one Whittingham has obviously pursued aggressively.

Winning perpetuates winning, and as Whittingham pointed out, knocking off a Top 10 UCLA team in the Rose Bowl helps fly the Utah flag just a little bit higher among the crowded Southern California recruiting scene.

“It was a great on a lot of different levels,” he said. “For the players we have on the roster currently, for the players we’re recruiting down there currently on our list, playing on national TV…lot of good things coming out of that football game.

“But it’s just one game,” he was quick to add. “We can’t sit here and pat ourselves on the back.”

Apparently, the memories of last year’s run post-Stanford still linger. Still, Utah football just feels different this time. This looks more like a Pac-12 roster from top-to-bottom, in terms of both size and speed.

There are two midseason All-America caliber players in Orchard and kick returner Kaelin Clay, a breakout star at running back in Booker, and one of the conference’s top wideouts in Anderson.

And perhaps most importantly, there’s a confidence emanating from Salt Lake City that suggests Utah is ready to make its presence known in the Pac-12 each and every week–not just the occasional Saturday, as it did from the 2000s through its first few years in the conference.

“We’ve closed that gap considerably,” Whittingham said. “We feel like we’re in a better place overall as a program than we have been since we joined the league.”