Salt Lake City will be electric when Colorado squares off with Utah on Saturday night. There is a lot on the line for both teams: the 6th-ranked Utes (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) are chasing the College Football Playoff and would clinch a second straight Pac-12 South title with a win; the Buffaloes have smaller stakes, but a three-game win streak to achieve bowl eligibilty would give Mel Tucker’s team and serious momentum moving forward.
With Oregon no longer a factor after their shocking loss to Arizona State, Utah appears to present a good argument for the Playoff committee to snag one of the four spots should they take care of business against CU. #1 Ohio State, #2 LSU and #3 Clemson are virtual locks, while #4 Georgia and #5 Alabama could make it two teams for the SEC, a scenario possible if Georgia beats LSU (they both get in) or Georgia loses and the committee picks Alabama (who won’t play in the conference title). If Utah beats Colorado on Saturday and Oregon in the Pac-12 title, they could very well leapfrog into that #4 spot.
In the unlikely even CU wins, the Buffs could be the wooden horse sent into Rice-Eccles Stadium to win the war for the Trojans. An upset victory for CU would knock the Pac-12 out of contention for the Playoff and USC would make the conference championship as the South winners. This would likely save Clay Helton’s job, which everyone in the Pac-12 should be hoping for. This scenario — a Playoff contender losing at home as 28-point favorites, then giving way to USC making the Pac-12 Championship — is so Pac-12 that it hurts.
Moving ahead to the actual game, Saturday could be decided in the trenches. Utah has been outstanding in rushing offense and rushing defense. The Utes rushing defense hails as the best in the nation, allowing 55.9 yards per game and four touchdowns. Led by the massive Leki Fotu, they have held opponents to under 70 rushing yards in nine games. Not since TCU in 2008 has a team done that so many times in a season, and TCU was doing that against Mountain West foes.
On the other side, Utah’s rushing attack keeps moving forward as they average 215.3 yards per game. Zack Moss leads the Pac-12 with 1,158 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and two of his best career games have come this season — 203 yards on 26 carries last week at Arizona and 29 carries for 187 yards in the season opener on Aug. 29 at BYU.
“We definitely came up here wanting to be legendary, wanted to make some history here,” Moss said earlier this week. “All the things that have happened, we couldn’t have scripted.”
One of the best hires for Utes coach Kyle Wittingham was offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Utah continues to evolve on offense. The consistency of Moss, along with the improvement of quarterback Tyler Huntley is a direct result of Ludwig. Huntley is currently ranked in the top ten for completion percentage (2nd, 75.0%), passing yards per attempt (3rd, 11.2 yards), and yards per completion (7th, 14.9 yards).
“I’d say the first few years, I was just playing football,” Huntley told the Salt Lake Tribune. “These last couple of years, I started loving football, as in sacrificing a lot of my free time, just to better myself.”
Ludwig has coached a 1,000-yard rusher sixteen times in his 32-year career. While at Wisconsin, Ludwig coached Melvin Gordon to the second-best season in FBS history with 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns, falling 41 yards shy of the record 2,628 yards set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988. Gordon also set the single-game rushing record with 408 yards against Nebraska in 2014. A record broken the following week by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine with 427 yards vs. Kansas.
Utah is one of three teams in FBS to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive yards per play. The Utes are ninth in offensive yards per play (6.95 yards) and fourth in defensive yards per play (4.24 yards).
Colorado could make history themselves. The Buffaloes have won two straight, but look to be the first CU team to advance to postseason play after losing five straight in a season. That’s a task Mel Tucker welcomes going into his first game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, although he probably doesn’t want to lose five straight ever again.
“It’s going to be about how we prepare during this week and how we play the game. That’s what it’s really going to be about,” Tucker said. “This just happens to be the end of our regular season, against a great opponent who is trying to get into the Playoff, on national television— so a great opportunity.”
Colorado defense held Washington to a season-low 238 total yards in the 20-14 win this past Saturday. The Buffs have allowed 27 points in the past two games, snapping an FBS record 14 straight games of allowing 30+ points. Prior to the win over Stanford, CU’s defense allowed 53 plays of 20 or more yards (5.88 per game) and a total of five in the last two contests.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffs have turned to more production on the ground as well. In the past two games, CU has rushed for an average of 189.5 yards and 4.62 yards per carry. They broke the 200-yard mark rushing for the second time this season with 207 yards against Washington (243 yards vs. CSU). Alex Fontenot has been marvelous as a lead back, as the sophomore will get four yards every time and occasionally bust one loose.
Colorado’s challenge will be exploiting Utah by forcing mistakes and capitalizing on them. What’s important for the Buffaloes is how receivers Laviska Shenault Jr., Tony Brown, and K.D. Nixon go up against Utah’s secondary, who’s ranked fifth in the nation and allowing opponents an average of 5.7 yards per catch.
That won’t be possible without a strong game from Steven Montez. Montez will likely play his final game in a Buffs uniform on Saturday. The El Paso, Texas passer broke CU’s all-time touchdown mark last Saturday, moving ahead of Sefo Liufau and Cody Hawkins with 61 TDs. He can go out with a bang if he deals against Utah, and if he ends leading a win, he can celebrated again.
News and Notes
From the desk of Dave Plati:
Burning up the clock: “In Colorado’s 20-14 win over Washington, the Buffaloes took over at their own 1-yard line with 5:09 remaining in regulation. CU proceeded to earn five first downs on its next 11 plays, driving to the UW 17, where a kneel-down by QB Steve Montez ended the game. TB Alex Fontenot carried seven times for 20 yards and two first downs on the drive (numbers were hurt as he took a 7-yard loss when he fumbled the handoff); Montez scrambled 12 yards for a first down out to the Colorado 18, and then on 3rd-&-16, connected with WR Dimitri Stanley for a 27-yard gain to the Buff 39; he found Stanley again on the next play for an 18-yard pickup into UW territory at the 39.
The 5:09 that Colorado ran out the clock was the second-longest game-ending drive nursing a one-score lead in CU history; it’s trails only the 7:10 that Colorado ran out the clock to defeat Arizona State, 28-21, on Oct. 6 of last year. The previous longest time the Buffs held on to the ball to end any game with a one-score lead in its history was on Sept. 23, 1995 in a 29-21 win over Texas A&M, when CU burned the last 4:51 off the clock (one first down). CU receiver coach Darrin Chiaverini was a freshman on that team.”
2019 Final Attendance Update: “The attendance for the season finale of 44,618 for the Washington game (despite what an apparent “expert” on crowd analysis from the Seattle Times called a “sparsely filled stadium” … to which we say, did you write that an hour before the game?), pushed the season’s final number to 297,817 for six games (49,573 per); that included two sellouts against Nebraska and Arizona State. CU just missed averaging 50,000-plus for the first time since 2011 (50,355, the last time CU had three 50,000 crowds in a year) and drawing 300,000 for the first time since 2009 (300,527). The Buffaloes finished at 98.8 percent of capacity (50,183), one of the top figures nationally (Note: CU has always counted some passes for media and select others in its attendance counts).”
Close encounters of a one-score kind: “To say that first-year (and first-time) head coach Mel Tucker has had his emotions all over the place could be an understatement, with so many games going down to the wire. In fact, seven have ended by seven points or less, five of those by five or fewer and three by a field goal. Nationally, that’s up there; 43 schools have played five or more one-score games through Nov. 23, and Tucker is joined by just two others going through this as a first-time head college coach. CU last had as many as seven games decided by one score or less in 2015, when seven of 13 were in a 4-9 season (going 2-5 in those games).”
Colorado goes west for a regular season finale with Utah on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 5:30 p.m. MT. The Buffs hold a 32-30-23 all-time series lead, but the Utes have won six of the past eight as member of the Pac-12. Colorado is 2-1 against ranked teams this season and the last time the Buffs won three or more in the same year was back in 2001.
TV: ABC (National) Steve Levy (play-by-play) / Brian Griese (color) / Molly McGrath & Todd McShay (sidelines)
Radio: 850 KOA (Regional) Mark Johnson (play-by-play)/ Gary Barnett (color)
Weather Forecast: 22°, light snow at kickoff
Odds: -28 Utah