Preview: No. 6 Utah vs. Colorado

Ryan Kostecka

It’s Thanksgiving week, and with that comes rivalry week in the wonderful world of college football. For No. 6 Utah and Colorado, there’s plenty at stake when the teams meet at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City — with kickoff being set for 5 p.m. MST.

For the Utes, not only is it senior night and a chance to honor two of the best offensive players in program history, the college football playoff is at stake.

For the Buffaloes, not only can they play spoiler for their rival to the west, they can become bowl-eligible with a win, the first time accomplishing that honor since 2016.

That’s why Saturday’s matchup carries so much weight, for two programs fighting to achieve different goals that are only attainable with wins.

“It will be Senior Day for us. … We have about 16 or 17 seniors that we are going to say goodbye to that have done so much for this program and they have been so instrumental to the success we have had,” said Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach. “Colorado is coming off a two-game win streak with Stanford and Washington back-to-back — especially a nice win against the Huskies a couple of days ago. They are starting to play better.”

Utah is the Pac-12’s last hope at a return to the college football playoff, checking in at No. 6 in this week’s rankings. No. 14 Oregon appeared to be the conference’s best hope but a loss at Arizona State last week eliminated the Ducks, putting all the pressure on the Utes.

But Whittingham is insisting Utah won’t be looking ahead, and before any of the other stuff can come, a win over Colorado is a must to secure the Pac-12’s south division and a berth in the conference championship game against the Ducks.

"It has been a very good season so far, but we are not losing focus," Whittingham said. "We have more work ahead of us, not just this game. It is the game we are focusing on right now, but there are things we have to take care of."

Outside of a lone loss to No. 22 USC, Utah has dominated in Pac-12 play by being the more physical team in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Utah is blessed with the conference’s top rushing game, averaging 215.3 yards per game, including a season-high 297 last week at Arizona.

Nov 23, 2019; Tucson, AZ, USA; Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) avoids the tackle of Arizona Wildcats cornerback Jace Whittaker (17) during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Moss is a large reason why the Utes have been so dominant, leading the Pac-12 while being 12 in the country at 115.8 yards per carry. Quarterback Tyler Huntley is also a threat to run the ball, amassing 228 yards and five scores on the ground.

"It seems like we're getting stronger while a lot of guys are getting weaker," Moss said.

For how special Utah is on offense, they’ve been better defensively.

Possessing the nation’s No. 1 rush defense at 55.9 yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry, the Utes have held nine different opponents to under 70 or fewer rushing yards. With the help of Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae, that’s the first time an FBS team has accomplished that feat since 2008.

“That’s where it all starts for us on defense is taking away the run,” Whittingham said. “So rush defense has to be our M.O. That doesn’t change week-to-week.”

This will also be the chance for Utah’s pass defense to shine as it takes on Laviska Shenault Jr. — a standout wide receiver who’s one of the best in the country and expected to be a first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Fortunately for the Utes, they have an expected high draft pick themselves to defend Shenault in junior Jaylon Johnson. Johnson, who is expected to declare for the upcoming NFL draft, could be honored at Saturday’s game along with the other Ute seniors.

“At this point, it is just my job at this point to go out and shut whoever their best guy is down,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing new for this week, just go out there and whoever they put me on, I plan to lock up.”

But Shenault should provide Johnson with his toughest test to date, as Shenault is dangerous in yards after the catch so limiting his touches is a priority.

Nov 9, 2019; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (2) celebrates after his successful fourth down carry against the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s tremendous after the catch. He’s a great runner. Some receivers after they catch the ball, there’s not much there, they get a few yards here or there, but he is explosive after the catch,” Whittingham said of the Colorado standout. “After he makes a reception, he turns into a running back. He could probably play running back — that’s how talented he is.”