Utah Football Muscles Ahead The Old-Fashioned Way

The formula of winning football games with the running game, defense and controlling field position is supposed to be passé. Maybe by January it still will be, but right now the Utah Utes are showing you can still win the old-fashioned way. They remained undefeated last night with an exciting 30-24 win over Cal and its golden boy quarterback Jared Goff. Utah has played the best football in the country these first six weeks of the season and is a viable contender for the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.

It starts with defense for the Utes. They have NFL-caliber seniors at every level of the D. Jason Fanaika is at defensive end, Jared Norris and Jason Wittingham (son nephew of head coach Kyle) are at linebacker and Tevin Carter at strong safety. They control field position with the excellence of punter Tom Hackett. And they pound the rock with Devontae Booker.

Booker is a tough, physical runner who rolled up 222 yards last night, over half of it after the first contact. In an era where so many college football defenses are built to stop speed and often struggle with elemental parts of the game like tackling, Booker is a handful.

In its first five games, Utah has beaten Michigan 24-17, blown out Oregon on the road 62-20 and now has last night’s win over previously undefeated Cal. If the blowout of the Ducks has lost some of its shine (Oregon lost again last night to Washington State), the victory over the Wolverines looks more impressive with each passing week.

Even one of the supposedly easier games, against Utah State, really wasn’t easy. The Aggies are now a regular bowl team and have a winning record in 2015. Heck, Utah State would probably pass for the tough game on an SEC team’s non-conference schedule.

It’s that body of work which leads me to say Utah’s resume right now is the most impressive in the nation. But are they really the best team, or at least one of the best four teams, or at the very least the best in the Pac-12? That’s going to depend on some combination of the play of quarterback Travis Wilson and this program’s general challenging of the conventional wisdom in today’s game.

The passing game is the classic “game manager” style. Wilson does not generate big plays, less than seven yards per attempt. He’s thrown three interceptions in five games, which could be better, but isn’t bad. The 66% completion rate is good enough, but it’s both a testament to Booker’s skill and the shortcomings of this offense that the big running back leads the team in both receptions and receiving yardage.

Utah has played a tough schedule, but it’s most important games—the ones against Pac-12 South contenders—are still ahead. The Utes are 2-0 in league play, the only South team to be without a conference loss and have only Arizona State and UCLA within one game. Utah hosts Arizona State next week, the second straight week the Utes will get the 10 PM ET slot on ESPN. They host UCLA on November 21, the game that will likely determine this division title.

Whether that division title shot comes with a Playoff shot depends on other notable games that include an October 24 road trip to suddenly disintegrating Southern Cal and a November 7 trip up to Washington, the team responsible for the latest crisis in the Trojan program after winning at the Coliseum on Thursday night.

Utah will probably not go undefeated, but so long as the loss is not to UCLA or in a Pac-12 Championship Game, one loss is survivable to still reach the College Football Playoff. This is a program that has a recent history of making a national impact—they capped off undefeated seasons with major bowl victories in 2004 and 2008 (the latter including a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama). This year, with four teams in the Playoff and the program itself in the Pac-12, Utah doesn’t have to worry about being left out in the cold.

As one who finds the new style of football unedifying, I’m hoping the Utes can turn back the clock and keep winning with some muscle.