For the first time since joining the Pac-12, the University of Utah will represent the Southern Division in the Conference championship game on Friday, Nov. 30th, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA.
The Utes (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) will be facing off against the Washington Huskies (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) for the second time this season. Their first matchup was an ugly, hard-fought 21-7 win for the Huskies in Salt Lake City in late September. The championship game will be the first time Utah has seen an opponent twice in a season since 1945.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham stressed how much both teams had evolved since their Saturday night showdown. While crediting Washington for being consistently excellent throughout the season, Whittingham emphasized that at the time of the game, the Utes had yet to really “hit their stride” in all facets, which might have contributed to the nature of the loss.
Looking at the raw numbers, the game should be a defensive showdown between two teams that have earned their right to play for the Pac-12 crown. Utah needed to win out and benefit from an Arizona State loss to get into the championship. Washington won their spot in the last game of the season when they dethroned Washington State in the Apple Cup.
The roads for both of these teams have been winding and full of demoralizing losses and triumphant victories. Washington started their season with a loss to Auburn, before winning five straight, including convincing wins against Utah and BYU, before dropping an overtime thriller to Oregon, and following that up with an ugly loss to Cal before winning every other game to close out the season.
Utah’s road to the championship followed a similar path. The team remained perfect in their opening non-conference games, and while sputtering on offense, headed into the Pac-12 conference play with much to improve, but a 2-0 record. The team fell hard against Washington, and was defeated by Washington State the week after, and speculations and criticisms began to surround the team heading into week five. The team sat at 2-2, and both sides of the ball had yet to hit their stride. That is, until the Utes traveled to Santa Clara for the first time of the year to face off with then-ranked No. 14 Stanford. The Utes shocked the world and blew the Cardinal out of the water, winning 42-21. The win put Utah right back into the running for the Pac-12 South. Like in many other instances this season, all the team needed was a spark to get things going the right way, and the Utes took advantage of that victory. The team would go on to win their next four games, setting the record with three consecutive victories against USC, Arizona and UCLA. Even with the loss to Arizona State the next week, the team would leave the Washington State loss and win seven of their last eight, all by a touchdown or more. The closest the Utes came to suffering another loss was the week following Arizona State, when brand new starters Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne escaped Rice Eccles Stadium with a close victory against Oregon.
The matchup on Friday sees two defensive powerhouses and two high-scoring offenses collide. The Utes rank among the top 50 teams in the country in defensive production, tackles for loss and interceptions. The special teams, which might be a key factor, is by far the best in the Pac-12 and in the top three in the nation. That gives the Utes a huge advantage, and more importantly, space to work, knowing that the ball doesn’t have to enter the endzone every drive for the team to put up points, which are hard to come by when playing Washington.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Utes are the underdogs heading into week 13. With backs against the wall, and nothing to lose, the team will look to make history yet again.