During every home football the University of Utah airs an announcement on the big screen that proclaims the institution is a place “where you can be you,” regardless of ethnicity, orientation or virtually whatever else.
Relative to football, in the last game of the regular season, the Utes let Zack Moss who he wants to be, which is their leading ball carrier, a designation that should have occurred far more often this season. Unleashing Moss early and often, the Utes rode the sophomore running back to a huge lead in the first half on the way to crushing Colorado 34-13 on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Evening their record to 6-6, the Utes have become bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season. Bowl selections will be finalized next Sunday, the day after the conference championship games are played. The Pac-12 has nine eligible teams for seven bowls, meaning Utah could get sent to any of several locations far from Salt Lake City.
“This team never folded their tent,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “They were competitive every single week, even though a couple of scores were more than they should have been.”
Wherever they go, the Utes would be wise to follow the same offensive game plan that dominated the Buffaloes, who finished in last place one spot ahead of Utah. The Utes and UCLA are the two 6-6 Pac-12 teams to reach bowl eligibility.
With Troy Williams replacing injured Tyler Huntley at quarterback, Moss had to figure the ball would be coming his way. Williams is a more traditional quarterback, preferring to hand off the ball and stay in the pocket on passing plays.
Moss responded with his best game of the season, rushing for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. In the first half, when Utah raced out to a 28-0 lead, Moss totaled 138 yards on 16 carries.
It was all part of the game plan prepared by offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, who during the week thought Utah could run the ball successfully. Colorado’s defense ranked 10th in the conference in rush defense.
“Just wanted to will this team to a win,” said Moss, who ran for 1,023 yards during the regular season.
In the eight games that Huntley and Moss started and finished, the sophomore quarterback led the team in carries in five games. Moss was Utah’s leading rusher in all five games in which Williams took the majority of the snaps, including when Huntley went out injured against Arizona.
With Williams as the starter against USC, Moss averaged 7.1 yards on 20 carries. Utah lost on a failed two-point conversion to the Trojans, who finished 8-1 in conference play and will represent the South Division next week for the Pac-12 championship against Stanford.
“He was something else tonight,” said Williams. “I don’t know how many guys he ran over tonight. It was like playing Madden with Jerome Bettis in his prime. He was running dudes over.”
Excluding the opening game against FCS-level North Dakota, Moss surpassed the 100-yard mark three times this season. Williams started in two of those games, with the only exception being against UCLA. Moss gained 153 yards against the Bruins, who rank 12th in the conference in rush defense.
The point is, Utah’s offense should have featured more of Moss running the ball instead of Huntley. As dynamic as Huntley was this season, his decision to often keep the ball shortchanged Moss and impacted Utah’s ability to win more games.
“He’s strong as a bull,” said Whittingham.
Along with Moss, Whittingham also awarded a game ball to Williams. The senior, who started every game last season, handled his demotion about as well as expected this year.
As a team captain, Williams refused to slack off in his preparation.
“He’s been a great teammate all season long,” Whittingham said. “Never sulked, never pouted, work ethic never dropped off. His preparation never dropped off. He was prepared every single week, and when his number was called I thought he responded.”
Williams shrugged off any praise, saying he wanted to play well for the team and his family who were in attendance.
“You stay ready so you ain’t got to get ready,” he said. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”