Coming off its first 10-win season since moving to the Pac-12 from the Mountain West, a resurgent No. 16 Utah program controls its own fate headed into its final three games of the regular season.
Utah, 7-2 overall, 4-2 in the Pac-12, is currently tied for No. 2 in the Pac-12 South with USC. The Utes beat USC earlier in the season, but still have to play Pac-12 South leader Colorado in their final game of the year.
“It has come down to a three-game season and right now we are in position, we’re going into November, to control your own destiny and the position we are in is good,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said at his weekly press conference. “It’s not ideal. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good and we feel like we have a chance to finish and have a very positive season.”
Last year, Utah was tied for first in the Pac-12 South, finishing with a 10-3 overall mark, and a 6-3 Pac-12 record. The Utes finished the season ranked No. 17 in the AP Top 25 poll. This season, Utah was not ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, but has climbed the charts for the majority of the season.
Leading the Utah team is Whittingham, who is in his 12th year at the helm of the Utes squad.
In only his fourth year coaching the Utes in the Mountain West, he led his team to a 13-0 record, capped with a 31-17 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. In both 2009 and 2010, Utah went 10-3 before transitioning over to play its first season in the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah went a combined 27-23 through its first four seasons in the Pac-12.
“We have more depth and talent that we’ve had, in my opinion, since we’ve joined the league and I think that shows up during the course of the game too,” Whittingham said. “We are talented enough to overcome and recover the adversity we are facing.”
This week, Utah is on bye after falling 31-24 to No. 4 Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium last week. The Utes were on a three-game win streak prior to the loss.
The Utes travel to Tempe to play Arizona State (5-4 overall, 2-4 in Pac-12) on Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
Last year, then-No.4 Utah beat ASU 34-18 at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 17, 2015. The Sun Devils weren’t at full health during the game, and their offense stalled with then-sophomore running back Demario Richard not playing due to a right knee injury.
This year, Utah will likely go into its matchup against ASU as a favorite, behind the arm of a transfer, junior quarterback Troy Williams. Williams is 142-for-260 passing for 1,888 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions on the season.
Williams is in his first year with Utah after transferring from Santa Monica College. Prior to playing in the junior college ranks, Williams was with Washington, playing in five games with one start in 2014.
Williams’ first NCAA start was a 24-10 loss to ASU on Oct. 25, 2014. He completed 18-of-26 passes for 130 yards and two interceptions.
Former Utah quarterback Travis Wilson led the Utes last year and was 195-for-314 passing for 2,095 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the year.
This year, Utah is No. 7 in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 426.7 yards per game and 29.2 points per game. The Utes are No. 9 in the Pac-12 in passing offense, averaging 212.4 yards per game.
In the receiving corps, four wide receivers have 15 or more catches this season, with senior wide receiver Tim Patrick leading the Utes with 29 catches for 501 yards and five touchdowns.
Patrick only played briefly in one game last season before missing the remainder of the season with an injury.
In addition to Patrick, sophomore wide receiver Rae Singleton has 19 catches for 307 yards and one touchdown, senior tight end Evan Moai has 18 catches for 257 yards, and senior wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd has 17 catches for 263 yards. Butler-Byrd became a full-time wide receiver in the spring after playing both ways (cornerback and wide receiver) last season.
In the run game, despite losing former Utes running back Devontae Booker to the 2016 NFL Draft, Utah has flourished behind the once-retired legs of running back Joe Williams.
Joe Williams, who left the team in September because his body felt worn out, came back at the request of Whittingham after a slew of Utah injuries at running back.
Since coming out of retirement three games ago, Joe Williams has rushed for 683 yards, an average of 227.7 yards per game. Through the five games Joe Williams has played in this season, he has 120 carries for 758 yards and six touchdowns.
“Since he’s come back out of retirement, he’s been a warrior,” Whittingham said. “And can’t say enough positive things about Joe and what he‘s meant to our football team these last few weeks. I underestimated his ability to carry the ball as much as he’s carried it.”
Last year, Williams had 104 carries for 477 yards and three touchdowns.
Coaching the Utah running backs is Dennis Erickson, who is also Utah’s assistant head coach and former ASU head coach from 2007-11. Erickson is now in his fourth year as a Utah assistant and his second as the assistant head coach.
Utah is No. 5 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with 214.2 rushing yards per game.
On defense, Utah currently leads the nation in takeaways with 23 and is tied for No. 1 in the nation with 15 interceptions.
Utah senior cornerback Brian Allen leads the Utes with four interceptions, senior linebacker Marcus Williams has three and senior cornerback Reginal Porter, sophomore safety Chase Hansen, and junior safety Jordan Fogal all have two interceptions this season.
“Recruiting good athletes in the secondary,” Whittingham said regarding the reason behind the interceptions. “That’s what it really comes down to. Guys that are athletic and have good ball skills and that combined with the pass rush that gets the quarterback speeding things up and maybe getting rid of the ball off-balance or before he wants to. And so I think it’s a combination of those two things. And this is two or three years now in a row we have had really good production in the secondary in pass breakups and interceptions.”
Behind Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who is in his first year at the position after eight seasons coaching Utah’s safeties, Utah is No. 4 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 22.7 points per game.
The Utes are No. 3 in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 128.3 yards per game on the ground.
With a plethora of talented defensive lineman up front, Utah has 24 sacks this year, led by senior defensive end Hunter Dimick.
Dimick, 6-foot-3, 272 pounds, is a force along the defensive line, recording 38 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and one forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Last year, Dimick played in seven games with five starts, missing six games due to injury. Of his 14 total tackles in 2015, seven were tackles for loss and three were sacks.
In addition to Dimick on the line, Utah junior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi is tied for second on the team in sacks with four and adds on 32 tackles, six tackles for loss, and one forced fumble. Utah senior defensive tackle Pasoni Tasini is second on the team in tackles for loss, recording 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
Hansen leads the Utes' defensive squad overall with 58 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, four passes defended, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.