No. 25 Utah, Stanford trying to salvage seasons
Lopsided losses to Oregon changed all that.
Now the only thing the No. 25 Utes (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) and the unranked Cardinal (5-4, 3-3) can do is salvage what's left of their seasons, starting when they meet Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
''As a competitor, you're trying to win every game,'' Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said. ''Some things are out of your control. We're playing for what we can right now, and that's for each other, for our seniors and to get as many wins as we can the rest of the way.''
Utah is going for its first winning season since 2011, when the program joined the expanded conference. The Utes are trying to overcome a rash of injuries to achieve that elusive last victory, including quarterback Kendal Thompson's season-ending knee injury in a 51-27 home loss to the Ducks last weekend.
''We've learned the last couple of years that you have to put things behind you, win or lose, quickly because the next week is going to be another battle royale,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''That's just how this league is. And I think this team in particular has a great mentality when it comes to that, being able to get the last game out of their system and put their sights and their focus squarely on the next opponent.''
Stanford's final home game, when the program will honor its outgoing seniors during pregame introductions, might be the best chance left for the two-time defending conference champions to - somewhat amazingly - just become bowl-eligible.
The Cardinal, who finish the season at improved rival California and rejuvenated UCLA, haven't missed a bowl game since Jim Harbaugh's second year as coach in 2008. Utah ended Stanford's undefeated streak and its national title hopes with a 27-21 win in Salt Lake City last year, so the Cardinal also will be looking for a little payback.
''Motivation's never been an issue,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said, ''because it's got to come from within.''
Here are some things to watch when Utah visits Stanford:
DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: While both offenses have been sporadic, the defenses have been among the conference's best. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.1 points per game), total defense (281.1 yards) and rushing defense (110.2 yards). Utah leads the nation with 43 sacks and has the league's third-best scoring defense (24.6 points).
TOP RETURNERS: Kaelin Clay's careless goal line fumble that Oregon returned for a score prevented Utah from taking a 14-0 lead and swayed the momentum solidly in the Ducks' favor last week. He's averaging a league-best 22.4 yards and has returned three punts for TDs, and now he's looking to atone for his big blunder. Ty Montgomery, who had a 100-yard kickoff return against Utah last season, is Stanford's best playmaker. He has two punt returns for scores this season.
PUNTER'S PARADISE: In what could turn into a field-position game, the punters might have a major impact. Utah's Tom Hackett, a rugby-style kicker from Australia, is second nationally with a 47.2-yard average and is first with 14 punts inside the opponent's 10-yard line. Stanford's Ben Rhyne ranks 11th in the conference with a 39.1-yard average.
WILSON AGAIN: Travis Wilson has regained Utah's starting quarterback job after Thompson's season-ending knee injury. Wilson has played in all nine games and is 5-2 as the starter. He's thrown for 1,381 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions - both against Oregon last week.
FRESHMAN'S TIME: Stanford's do-it-all freshman Christian McCaffrey has dazzled nearly every time he's touched the ball, and Shaw has been searching for ways to get McCaffrey more involved without a full understanding of the offense. McCaffrey has 10 receptions for 186 yards and two TDs and 83 yards rushing on 13 carries. Coming off a bye last week, look for Stanford to find more ways to use McCaffrey.