SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Sione Vaki ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns and Ja’Quinden Jackson rushed for 94 yards and a score to lead No. 16 Utah past California 34-14 on Saturday.
Bryson Barnes threw for 128 yards and ran for 50 more and a touchdown for the Utes (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12). Barnes got his third start of the season after getting benched against Baylor in Week 2.
Vaki, who is also Utah’s starting strong safety, averaged 10.5 yards per carry as the Utes amassed a season-high 317 rushing yards. He became the first defensive back to have a rushing touchdown for the Utes since Eric Weddle scored on a 4-yard run in the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl.
“I’m just here to help the team,” Vaki said. “Whatever the coaches need, I’m here for it.”
Weddle ran for 203 yards and five touchdowns in his senior season at Utah in 2006 while frequently playing both ways. A package of plays resembling what Weddle once ran was tailored for Vaki to boost a thin backfield decimated by injuries.
“He’s the perfect guy for that role and, going forward, you’re going to continue to see him,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Fernando Mendoza threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns in his second career start for Cal. The Bears (3-4, 1-2 Pac-12) generated just 66 yards on the ground against a stifling Utah defense after averaging 216.8 over their first six games.
Jaydn Ott broke a pair of tackles after catching a short pass along the sideline and raced 48 yards to give California a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The Bears converted two third downs on the drive, including Ott’s scoring play, but failed to convert another one until late in the third quarter.
Utah took over in the second quarter behind its punishing running attack. Jackson scored from 3 yards after Lander Barton’s interception at midfield, and Vaki made it 14-7 at half when he ran in from the 1 on a direct snap.
Barnes’ 4-yard run made it 24-7 in the third after Jonah Elliss forced a fumble and Cole Bishop recovered at the Cal 13.
Elliss leads the nation in sacks with 7.5 this season.
“It’s awesome, man,” Elliss said. “We know we need to get those takeaways. We have a whole bunch of statistics showing that if we take away the ball, we have a very high percentage chance of winning that game.”
“We need to get bigger and stronger,” California coach Justin Wilcox said. “They moved us off the ball on defense. We had a hard time blocking them one-on-one. Blocking, tackling, strength size, and all that. That’s why I think the rushing stats look like they did.”
Vaki put the game away when he made a cut and raced 72 yards untouched down the sideline to make it 31-14 with 6:51 left.
After setting season highs in multiple offensive categories, the Utes are confident about making bigger strides on offense going forward.
“I can’t even put a ceiling there,” Barnes said. “As long as we’re executing and we’re doing the things that we need to be doing – trusting the coaches and the game plan they have set in for us – there is no ceiling.”
Bishop was ejected after a targeting call in the fourth quarter. Unless Utah wins its appeal, the All-Pac-12 safety will miss the first half of next week’s game at USC on October 21st.