SALT LAKE CITY -- No matter how discouraging things got, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham never settled for the “ah shucks, we’re just glad to be here” tack.
Sure, the Utes are happy to be in the Pac-12. But Whittingham and his guys were tired, annoyed, irritated, disgruntled, peeved, drained and downright taxed from being the team that always seemed to be oh-so-close. The proverbial hump seemed more like the Wasatch Mountains that shadow Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Saturday night the annoyance, irritation and exhaustion came to an end as a sea of red enveloped the 50-yard line following the Utes' 27-21 win over No. 5 Stanford.
The win was a John Hancock-sized signature moment and an announcement to the rest of the league that Utah can no longer be penciled in as a win.
After dropping its first two Pac-12 games by a total of 10 points -- an overtime loss to Oregon State and a touchdown loss to UCLA -- the Utes broke through with a salty defensive performance and game-ending, goal-line stand that earned Whittingham his 75th career win.
“We could have fragmented,” Whittingham said of the two close losses. “We could have had a 'what’s the point' kind of a deal. But the senior class refused to let that happen. No way we were going to back off. They knew they were close, and they persevered.”
After falling behind 7-0 and 14-7 in the first quarter, the Utes defense held Stanford scoreless in the second and third quarters, forced a pair of fumbles and shut down the Cardinal on fourth-and-2 from the Utah 6 in the final minute.
“Our defensive stand was huge,” said Utah linebacker Trevor Reilly, who led the Utes with seven tackles and recovered both fumbles. “They came through in the end and showed great toughness. This is the first time we’ve beaten a top-10 team since I’ve been here, in 2009.”
With the loss, Stanford’s 13-game win streak, the second-longest in the country, comes to an end almost one year to the day that it started. Its last loss came on Oct. 13 at Notre Dame. It also marked Kevin Hogan's first loss as a starter (10-1).
The loss puts a serious wrinkle in Stanford’s national championship hopes -- especially on a day when No. 2 Oregon rolled Washington 45-24 in Seattle.
“We knew we were coming into a hornet's nest here,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “UCLA came in here a week ago and barely squeaked out. We knew it would be a battle, and we didn’t play well enough.”
Stanford took its opening drive 75 yards on seven plays and capped it with a 1-yard Tyler Gaffney run for a 7-0 lead. Utah answered on its first drive, also going 75 yards on eight plays, closing out the march with a 4-yard pass from Travis Wilson to Karl Williams.
The flurry of points continued when Ty Montgomery, who returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown last week against Washington, did it again from 100 yards. But that was the last score the Cardinal would get until the fourth quarter, when Hogan connected with Devon Cajuste for a 7-yard touchdown, cutting Utah’s lead to the final margin of 27-21.
“For our defense to hold that outfit to two scores is commendable,” Whittingham said.
Utah kicker Andy Phillips stayed perfect on the year (11-of-11) with second-half field goals of 23 and 48 yards.
Stanford was the highest-ranked opponent Utah has ever beaten at home. And with the win, they ended a streak of three consecutive losses to ranked teams.
The Utes took a 21-14 lead into the locker room after Wilson engineered an 11-play, 99-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard run from Dres Anderson. Utah totaled 415 yards of offense to Stanford’s 389.
“I feel like we won the national title,” said Anderson, who finished with four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown in the air and on the ground.
Playing with an injured throwing hand he hurt early in the second half, Wilson took a knee on the final play and flashed the “U” sign to the Utah student section. That was all it took for the fan base, which had seen two close conference losses at home, to storm the field.
“It’s nights like this why you coach,” Whittingham said. “We were able to win this game in the end. The team made plays at the wire, and that was the difference. We’ve had a few other close games this season where we weren’t able to make those plays down the stretch, and we did tonight.”