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Utah Utes running back Armand Shyne (6) celebrates after running the ball for a touchdown, bringing Utah to within six points of Brigham Young Cougars after the PAT, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — History has been made for the Utah Utes. Now comes an opportunity to write it in an even more positive manner.
After winning the Pac-12 South and reaching the championship game for the first time, the Utes find themselves just one victory away from an inaugural appearance in the “Granddaddy of Them All.” They would earn a berth in the Rose Bowl with a win over Washington on Friday (6 p.m., FOX) at Levi’s Stadium.
“It’s intense, I would say. You can sense it just walking around the facility — the different type of intensity that’s going around right now,” Utah wide receiver Britain Covey said before the team left Salt Lake City. “It’s a serious attitude that everybody has and everybody’s carrying around right now. It’s really cool to see because we know how good Washington is, but it’s a mixture of respect for Washington and excitement to possibly be able to play in the Rose Bowl.”
However, getting to the latter could be challenging. The Utes are 1-11 all-time against the Huskies. The losses include a 21-7 setback in Salt Lake City on Sept. 15.
“It was the very first game of the Pac-12 season,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in a championship game teleconference earlier this week. “A lot has changed since then.”
As such, Whittingham doesn’t see it having much bearing on Friday’s matchup. He noted that the teams have developed and evolved since the meeting at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes have new starters at quarterback and running back. Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne have stepped in for the injured Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss. They’ve played key roles in Pac-12 victories over Oregon and Colorado that allowed the program to secure its first outright South Division title.
Washington coach Chris Petersen isn’t surprised.
“Those are smart coaches over there,” he said. “You have a system, and you adapt your system a little bit to what you have.”
What both teams do have are strong defenses. The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in total defense (311.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (16.5 points per game). The Utes, in turn, are second in both categories — total defense (315.8 yards) and scoring defense (19.3 yards).
“That’s how I think of championship football,” Petersen said. “Everybody likes to talk about offense, but I think really good football comes down to big-time defense.”
Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
Utah and Washington are led in that regard by senior linebackers. Ben Burr-Kirven of the Huskies is first in the Pac-12 with 155 tackles. Chase Hansen of the Utes tops the conference in tackles for loss with 22.
Whittingham also praised the play of fellow senior linebacker Cody Barton, who has 96 tackles and 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
“They are both the heart and soul of that defense,” Whittingham said. “They have done a great job all year with their production and leadership, just everything. I couldn’t ask for anything more from the two guys that we have in there.”
The duo and the rest of Utah’s defense face a tough challenge from Washington. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are seniors with plenty of experience. Browning is a four-year starter with 11,796 career passing yards, 94 touchdown tosses and 33 interceptions. Gaskin made Pac-12 history by becoming the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He had 143 yards and a touchdown in the earlier game against Utah, although it took 30 carries to get it done.
Elaine Thompson, AP
“We didn’t let him just go crazy on us but he still had a good night. I think he is a heck of a back and one of the best in the country in my opinion,” said Whittingham, who noted that Gaskin was banged up around midseason and even missed Washington’s 12-10 loss at California on Oct. 27. “So he is definitely a guy that we are going to focus on. If he gets out and gets going and has a big game, then our chances aren’t real good.”
The South hasn’t fared well against the North in the Pac-12 championship game. After suffering six straight losses, USC became the first team to break through in the division. The Trojans defeated Stanford 31-28 in last year’s game.
“This certainly is an exciting opportunity for our players. This group has done a great job of handling their business this year. Not getting too high or too low and just staying the course,” Whittingham said. “I keep going back to our seniors on what a good job they have done leading this team all year long, and my guess is that we won’t press, we will just come out and play and give (it) our best shot.”
• • •
2018 Pac-12 Championship Game
- No. 17 Utah (9-3) vs. No. 10 Washington (9-3)
- Levi’s Stadium — Santa Clara, California
- Friday, 6 p.m. (MT)
- TV: FOX
- Radio: ESPN 700AM