Behind DeVontae Booker, Utah ready to finally make mark in Pac-12
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- DeVontae Booker grew up a Utah fan, watching the Utes rack up wins and Mountain West titles. He paid close attention when the Utes crashed the 2008 BCS party, rolling to a 13-0 record and routing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He had a special rooting interest because he knew people on the team, but more simply, because he loves good football. And for years, the Utes played it.
So, maybe more than anyone, Booker has been waiting for this moment.
A Washington State signee out of high school, Booker wound up at American River College when his grades didn’t pan out. He dominated as a sophomore in 2012, rushing for 1,472 yards with 15 touchdowns. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham thought his program was getting a special player when Booker committed in November '12, but he wasn’t sure when the tailback would show up. Sidelined by academic issues, Booker sat out in '13 to get his course work in order.
As it turns out, he was worth the wait.
Behind a monster performance from Booker on Thursday night in Oregon State’s Reser Stadium, No. 20 Utah pulled off its second impressive road win, beating the Beavers 29-23 in double overtime. The victory came two weeks after the Utes stunned then-No. 8 UCLA 30-28 in the Rose Bowl. It also puts Utah in a terrific position to contend for the Pac-12 South title and serves notice that the days of the Utes being a guaranteed win in the conference are over.
The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 when Utah and Colorado joined the league in 2011, and as the Utes struggled to mediocre seasons -- an 8-5 debut followed by consecutive 5-7 campaigns -- outsiders snickered that Utah might have been better off sticking with the little boys. But what many didn’t understand was that it’s physically tough to beat Utah, especially in Salt Lake City. Teams might escape with wins, but they often leave battered and bruised. However, with an offense that averaged just 4.7 yards per play in '12 (109th in the FBS) and 5.0 in '13 (95th), Utah’s toughness didn’t matter much. With Booker in the mix, that might change.
Booker spent most of Thursday night running around and through an Oregon State defense that ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense entering the contest (it had allowed an average of 331.4 yards per game). But the Beavers struggled to contain Booker, who carried 32 times for 229 yards with three touchdowns. He broke a crucial 53-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, and he now has 120 carries for 759 yards with seven scores on the season.
Another thing about Booker: He hangs on to the ball. When first-year co-offensive coordinator Dave Christensen arrived from Wyoming, where he was fired as head coach after five seasons, he noticed during film study that Utah had a bad habit of losing turnovers. It wasn’t hard to pick up on; the Utes gave the ball away 25 times last fall. “The thing that was glaring when I came on is how damaging turnovers were for them a year ago,” he said.
Utah turned the ball over twice at Oregon State on Thursday, just the second game this season in which the Utes had multiple giveaways. “What we have done a good job of is not putting our defense in bad situations,” Christensen said.
Utah’s defense, a suffocating, physical unit that likes to pressure quarterbacks, gets most of the attention, and rightfully so. In the first half Thursday night, it held Oregon State quarterback and NFL prospect Sean Mannion to just 6-of-12 passing for 43 yards. Mannion finished with 272 yards through the air, but Oregon State spent the first half settling for field goals.
“It’s unbelievable,” Christensen said. “I’ve not been in any situation, anywhere in my career, where our defense was this strong. I mean, we don’t play well for two or three quarters, and they’re still giving us a chance to win the game.
It’s Utah’s offense that still needs work, according to Christensen.
Booker does his share, but Christensen wants balance. The junior tailback is averaging a staggering 6.2 yards per carry and has rushed 89 times in the Utes’ past three games. He’s happy to do more -- he told Christensen he could have carried the ball 30 more times against the Beavers if necessary. Christensen loves that Booker is low to the ground with terrific vision and balance, making him hard to bring down. That he’s relentless is an added bonus. But he can’t do it all.
“We’re not catching the ball well now, and our passing game is suffering because of it,” Christensen said after Utah went just 9-of-18 for 62 passing yards Thursday. “We miss throws or drop balls. I’m not even close to being satisfied because I’ve never had a one-dimensional offense.”
The Utes are officially mired in a quarterback controversy now. Graduate transfer Kendal Thompson, who led Utah to that win over UCLA two weeks ago, started Thursday night before Whittingham opted to go with veteran Travis Wilson in the second half. Neither had great stats, and Whittingham said he would wait to make a decision for next week's matchup with USC until after watching film. Christensen reiterated that, but acknowledged it’s nice “to be able to go to the bullpen” if one guy is struggling.
|Aug. 28||Idaho State||W, 56-14|
|Sept. 6||Fresno State||W, 59-27|
|Sept. 20||at Michigan||W, 26-10|
|Sept. 27||Washington State||L, 28-27|
|Oct. 4||at UCLA||W, 30-28|
|Oct. 16||at Oregon State||W, 29-23 (2OT)|
|Nov. 1||at Arizona State||?|
|Nov. 15||at Stanford||?|
|Nov. 29||at Colorado||?|
Christensen was in the Mountain West at Wyoming when the Utes moved to the Pac-12, so he’s well aware of both their successes and their struggles. He knew it would take time for Utah to adjust to a different level, especially when it came to recruiting. And while fans began to wonder if Whittingham was still the right person to lead, Christensen knew this program would be just fine.
“It takes some time to get the right personnel,” Christensen said, pointing to TCU’s mid-major dominance and -- prior to this season -- Power Five struggles as a parallel to Utah’s journey. Suddenly, Utah is causing problems for Pac-12 foes, just like TCU is doing in the Big 12.
In the offseason, defensive end Nate Orchard noticed something, too. A special chemistry became obvious, as guys believed in each other and themselves. Whittingham says there was no stirring speech or particular moment when a switch flipped. It’s a process. “The brotherhood has continued to form," he said.
It helps, too, that selling the program to Pac-12 prospects got easier.
“Recruiting clicked, and that’s one of the most important things,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got more talent, more speed and some real belief.” The 2012 and ‘13 recruiting classes were littered with three- and four-star prospects, a necessity to compete at this level. Utah peaked with the No. 28 class in the nation in ‘12, according to Rivals.com. It took a couple years, but fans are finally seeing results.
While considerations for a dominant defense that could lead a team to a Pac-12 title have generally focused on Stanford, Utah is quietly making its own case. The Utes allow fewer than 22 points per game and, compared to the Cardinal, are in much better shape offensively, thanks to Booker.
Now, Utah must avoid a letdown. Whittingham noted in his postgame comments Thursday that the Utes had a pretty good sixth game of the season in 2013, too, when they stunned then-No. 5 Stanford. But Utah lost five in a row after that and missed a bowl berth. That can’t happen again.
After back-to-back wins over prominent Pac-12 programs, recruits are paying attention. Who knows? Maybe the next Booker is out there watching, waiting to be part of the next wave of Utah players to make noise on the national stage.