Last week, it appeared the regular season finale would be a clash for the Pac-12 South title.
It is, sort of, but Saturday's game has less meaning for Utah than the Utes had hoped. With a win, Colorado will take the Pac-12 South. Utah, however, coughed up its chance at the division crown last week with a shocking loss at home to Oregon, which came in at 3-7.
This week, the Utes (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) come into Boulder hoping to play spoiler and to take some momentum into a bowl game. BuffZone.com caught up with Dirk Facer, who covers the Utes for the Deseret News, to get his thoughts on the team heading into Saturday's game.
BuffZone: Do you think this team will have a hard time bouncing back from the Oregon loss this week, considering what it meant for their season?
Facer: There's no doubt that last week's 30-28 upset loss to Oregon took an emotional toll. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that the Utes went from "complete elation to complete devastation" when the Ducks scored with two seconds remaining — on a play that wasn't made official until a lengthy replay review overturned the original call of an incompletion. Now that the primary goal of winning the Pac-12 South is out of reach, the Utes are reduced to playing for pride and a better bowl game. They've also expressed a desire to finish with 10 wins. Will it be enough motivation? Hard to tell. The Oregon loss may be extremely tough to overcome.
BuffZone: For those who haven't watched Joe Williams play a lot, why has he been such a different player since he returned from his brief retirement?
Facer: Williams came back from his four-game retirement with a renewed determination to help the injury depleted team. He readily accepted the invitation to come back and has averaged 202.6 yards per game since returning to action. Utah assistant head coach Dennis Erickson, who coaches the running backs, said he's never seen anything like it in his lengthy career. He calls it "an amazing story." Erickson was at a loss for words about the transformation — noting that Williams is just "on a mission."
BuffZone: While Williams has probably been the most dominant running back in the Pac-12 in recent weeks, Hunter Dimick might be the most dominant defensive player lately. What makes him so successful in getting sacks and tackles in the backfield?
Facer: Dimick is also determined to succeed. Expectations were high after a stellar sophomore season. Injuries, however, marred his junior season. As a senior, Dimick is taking his frustration out on the opposition. He leads the nation with 14 sacks. Dimick and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley credit Utah's secondary for making the success with sacks and tackles for loss possible. Quarterbacks face challenges on multiple fronts. Dimick became Utah's career sacks leader last week. He enters the Colorado game with 29.
BuffZone: Overall on defense, the past four weeks have been a bit of a struggle for the Utes - at least by their standards. Is there something in particular they are struggling with on that side of the ball?
Facer: Tackling has been an issue this season. It's something that has the coaching staff a bit baffled. Utah has hung its hat on defense for years. Last week's loss to Oregon ended on an unusual note for the Utes. After holding the Ducks to just three points through two-and-a-half quarters, they gave up touchdowns on the last four Oregon drives. Despite the struggles with making tackles, Utah's defense in second in the nation in takeaways with 26. The Utes have intercepted 17 passes, most in the Pac-12.
BuffZone: Over the years, these teams have always played close, tough games. Do you see the same script being written this week?
Facer: The easy answer is yes. Five years is seemingly an adequate sample size to gauge such things — with all their Pac-12 meetings decided by a touchdown or less. This one, though, has some new variables with Colorado being able to claim an outright South Division title and Utah coming off an emotional setback. Thus, it's hard to say with certainty just what might happen. The revenge factor — when the Buffaloes kept the Utes out of the 2011 Pac-12 Championship Game with a 17-14 season-ending win in Salt Lake City — was a long time ago, obviously. That said, it's more about pride for Utah and it's a safe bet that Whittingham will have his team ready to play. It may not be enough, however.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.