SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah had to travel a rocky road to finally claim the school’s first Pac-12 South title.
The No. 18 Utes navigated a tough conference schedule and survived season-ending injuries to quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Still, Utah did not stumble before the finish line in November like in past seasons.
Now the reward is a chance to play for a Pac-12 championship on Nov. 30 against either Washington or Washington State.
“Our guys never backed down from anything,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “They just kept fighting and kept swinging. It’s great to see them write this chapter of Utah football history, because that’s what it is. The first South Division championship and these guys are the ones that did it.”
An immediate challenge for the Utes is surviving an upset bid from in-state rival BYU on Saturday night. The Holy War will be played as the regular-season finale for both teams for the first time since 2010, their final season together in the Mountain West Conference.
Both teams have traveled in opposite directions as the season has progressed.
Utah (8-3) bounced back from a 2-2 start on the strength of a stifling defense and an improved offense.
The Utes lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense (201.7 yards per game) and red zone offense (.905). They generate 30.5 points and 423.6 yards per game.
Utah tops the nation in red zone defense (.594). The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in several other categories, including total defense (312.1 yards per game), rushing defense (95.5 yards per game) and turnovers forced (18).
Utah has fielded tough teams that were in the divisional title mix before. This Utah team has had more staying power than those predecessors.
“I don’t know exactly what’s different,” punter Mitch Wishnowsky said. “There was just a lot of belief. Everyone knew what we could do this season.”
BYU (6-5) has fallen off the map since a 3-1 start propelled the Cougars into the Top 25. They needed back-to-back wins over Massachusetts and New Mexico State to get bowl-eligible.
The offense has experienced growing pains since freshman Zack Wilson took over as starting quarterback midway through the season. Wilson has shown flashes of game-changing potential, but has also struggled with holding the ball too long and taking drive-killing sacks.
As a team, BYU has struggled with slow starts. The Cougars have been outscored 31-14 in the first quarter over their last three games.
“We are always working constantly to try and get the perfect game and it will be a good opportunity to start fast and finish strong,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I think it will be a good time for us to play a complete game and maybe our best game of the year.”
Other things to note ahead of the meeting between BYU and Utah:
TARGETING QUESTIONS: Whittingham did not mince words over his displeasure with the way Pac-12 officiating crews are handling targeting penalties after Utah linebacker Chase Hansen was ejected from the first quarter of the Utes’ 30-7 win over Colorado for a targeting penalty. The call stirred up controversy because Hansen appeared to make a clean tackle when he dropped Buffaloes quarterback Steven Montez in the backfield.
“Targeting really seems to be an arbitrary call and capricious and random,” Whittingham said. “It was very frustrating and it’s so impactful. It takes one of our best, if not our best, defender off the field.”
DOWN TO THE WIRE: Close finishes have turned the Holy War into an exciting rivalry. Seventeen of the last 20 games between Utah and BYU have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Utes’ 54-10 rout of the Cougars in 2011 is the last time either team won by a double-digit margin.
TURNOVER TROUBLES: Coughing up the ball is a problem on both sides when BYU and Utah face off. Over the past three games between the two rivals, the Cougars have totaled 11 turnovers while the Utes have totaled eight.
DEEP THREAT: Redshirt freshman Jaylen Dixon is emerging as an outside receiver who can get behind defenses that Utah lacked earlier in the season. Dixon has tallied 161 yards and a touchdown on five receptions in his last two games. He leads the Utes with 27.4 yards per catch.
RUNNING BY COMMITTEE: Injuries have forced BYU to dig deep into the depth chart in the backfield. The Cougars have six different players who have rushed for at least 100 yards this season — a group that includes a wide receiver and a converted linebacker. Redshirt freshman Lopini Katoa leads the way with 427 yards and eight touchdowns on 77 carries.