November is the month to celebrate family and give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy, but it’s traditionally been a month of tough losses and dashed hopes for the Utes.
The 7-2 Utes are fresh off a bye week going into this Thursday’s game in Tempe, AZ, against the 5-4 Arizona State Sun Devils (who also sat out last week’s action) with the month of November offering three games with heightened importance: win out, and the Pac-12 South title is theirs.
While that sounds easy enough to do (at ASU, vs Oregon, at Colorado), Kyle Whittingham’s teams haven’t fared too well in the final portion of the schedule in recent years. Since joining the Pac-12 Conference, Utah is 10-11 in November games, which is in stark contrast to the 31-17 mark for August, September, and October games.
In a closer zoom lens, the Utes went 20-4 from August through October the last two seasons, but won just 4 times out of 9 tries in November.
“It boils down to a three game season, and you’ve got to take them one at a time. All of our focus is on Arizona State this week, obviously. It’s great to be in the hunt in November, and we’re in the hunt right now. Our guys understand that and we’ve got their full attention, I can tell you that for certain.”
Whittingham teams don’t typically lose after a bye week, however, as they’ve gone 39-11 during his tenure when they’ve had more than a week to prepare for an opponent, excluding season openers. The coach says it’s all about having a routine, and finding the time to take care of business.
“We got a lot accomplished. We got a few guys rested up. We took a few days off, gave the players some down time. Injury wise, we’ll hopefully get a few guys back. We got some recruiting done as well with the assistant coaches. So I think we got a lot done in the bye week.”
The injury bug has been no stranger to Utah’s locker room this season, seeing as they’ve lost five starters to season ending ailments. However, Lady Luck may be smiling on the training table now as three key players are expected to return to play against ASU, namely safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Sunia Tauteoli, and wide receiver Cory Butler-Byrd.
“We’re hoping they’re all available. It’ll be right down to the wire on a couple of them. I feel pretty confident Marcus will play, and Cory as well. We’re still three days out, and I can’t say definitively either way on any of them.”
The biggest threat facing Utah this week is the blitz-heavy run defense of Arizona State, a squad that has held opponents to just 116 yards per game, good enough for tops in the conference and 16th in the country.
“It goes back to the blitz packages. It’s a lot of feast or famine, particularly in the throw game, but in the run game when you’re stacking the box and bringing five, six defenders a high percentage of the time, that lends itself to knocking out the run game because there’s just so many guys to block up front. That’s where they usually are, in recent years, the top or near the top in the conference in run defense.”
So it comes down to just three games to play, with Utah simply needing to win-out to secure themselves a South division championship and a berth in the conference title tilt.
Those three games, again, take place in a month that has seen the Utes drop games they needed to win, leaving Thanksgiving dinners less jovial among the players’ and coaches’ families.
This year, however, Utah hopes to find themselves at the big-kids table.