Utah finally on solid ground after rough transition to Pac-12

Devontae Booker has rushed for 487 yards as Utah has picked up back-to-back-to-back narrow victories over UCLA, Oregon State and USC.

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TEMPE, Ariz. — As recently as last season, Utah appeared to be a Pac-12 bottom feeder. The Utes won just three conference games in 2012 and two in 2013. They were predicted in the Pac-12 preseason media poll to finish fifth in the conference this year.

It has become clear, though, that Utah has found solid ground in the Pac-12 after a rough transition from the Mountain West. The Utes (6-1, 3-1) come to Tempe for Saturday’s showdown with Arizona State (FOX Sports 1, 8 p.m. PT) ranked 18th and firmly in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title.  

"I think we expected it to be a competitive, tough transition, and it proved to be just that," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference. "One thing I can say is even though we’ve made a lot of progress in the last three and a half years since we joined the league: The other teams have gotten better as well. So it’s a matter of trying to get better at a more rapid rate than what everyone else is getting better. That’s the only way you can close the gap."

That gap, Whittingham said, started with speed and athleticism. When Utah joined the conference in 2011 along with Colorado, it became apparent to Whittingham quickly his team was not prepared to compete with the speed of Pac-12 receivers and defensive backs.

Utah also lacked the depth of its new conference rivals.

"We were pretty good down to about 25 or 30, but we weren’t good enough beyond that," Whittingham said. "Most teams in the Pac-12 have depth down to 50, 60, maybe even 70 players.

"So we’ve been working on that ever since we joined the league. We think we’ve made a lot of progress."

The step up in competition enabled much of the progress. Once Utah joined the Pac-12 it was suddenly able to get in a lot more doors in its recruiting, some of which led to commitments from a higher tier of talent.

"The Pac-12 is very well-respected, and being a part of that gave us instant credibility with recruits," Whittingham said. "We’ve seen a definite spike in our talent level and the recruits we’ve been able to bring in here."

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There were signs last season that Utah was starting to be more competitive. The Utes opened the season 3-2 before upsetting then-No. 5 Stanford, but that was followed by five consecutive losses, costing them bowl eligibility. Of their seven conference losses, three came by a touchdown or less.

"In those close games we seemed to, more times than not, not be on the winning end of those," Whittingham said.

Utah’s only loss this season was by one point to Washington State, but it has won its last three games by scoring with 34 seconds left to defeat UCLA, in double overtime to beat Oregon State and with eight seconds left in Saturday’s victory over USC in Salt Lake City.

Whittingham also credits an emphasis on Utah’s defense generating more turnovers. After collecting 13 takeaways all of last season, Utah has 13 through seven games this year, including eight interceptions (compared with three a year ago).

Ask Arizona State coach Todd Graham the difference in Utah between this year and last year, when ASU escaped Salt Lake City with a one-point victory, and he points directly to one player.

"The biggest difference in their team is their running back (Devontae Booker)," Graham said. "Man, I don’t know him, but I like him. He makes you tackle him, he runs hard, you can tell their line has a belief in him, and it’s a team that understands you have to run the football to win."

Booker, a junior college transfer, burst onto the scene a month ago, rushing for 178 yards in Utah’s loss to Washington State. In three games as the starter since, Booker has racked up 487 yards and five touchdowns. He’ll no doubt challenge ASU’s run defense, which ranks 11th in the Pac-12.

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"His emergence in the last three or four games has been huge," Whittingham said. "He’s been as productive of a back as we’ve had around here in a long time in those games. It’s really added to what we’re doing, especially in a stretch where we’re struggling a little bit to throw the football."

EXTRA POINTS

— ASU redshirt sophomore Stephon McCray practiced in place of starting left guard Christian Westerman (leg). McCray will likely start in Westerman’s place against Utah.

— Sophomore receiver Cameron Smith practiced without restriction Tuesday after sitting out ASU’s win over Washington with an unknown injury.

— With the Chicago Bears on a bye week, former ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton visited practice Tuesday. Sutton, the winner of the last two Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year awards, watched practice and spoke to players, at times giving defensive linemen pointers.

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