SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – The #13 Utah football team took care of business Saturday night against Stanford. Now it’s time for the biggest game of the year.
Tavion Thomas, whose role was greatly reduced the last several weeks, returned to his starting running back job and rushed for a career-high 180 yards and a touchdown in 42-7 blowout win over the Cardinal.
Now, Utah (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) heads to Oregon next week in a game that will go a long way to determining who plays in the Pac-12 Championship Game. With wins over Oregon and Colorado, the Utes will defend its conference title in Las Vegas December 2nd.
“I was just so happy to be out there with my teammates,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t worried about my carries, I was just worried about finishing this thing and playing with these guys.”
Cam Rising completed 20 of 33 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns for the Utes on Senior Night.
Utah started slow on a below-freezing night in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, but scored 42 straight points after trailing 7-0 to Stanford.
Utah’s defense was suffocating after the initial score while Thomas recorded his first 100-yard rushing game since the season opener at Florida and eclipsed his previous high (177) set at Stanford last year.
Thomas, who has been in and out of the lineup with personal issues, was pressed into heavy use because of injuries in the backfield.
“It’s been challenging but you can’t run from it, you have to attack it. I’ve got great guys here and a great support system and they got me back slowly but surely,” Thomas said.
He rushed for a four-yard TD in the second quarter and a 36-yard score in the fourth — his 28th career touchdown at Utah, moving him to third on the all-time rushing TD list.
“There were some bumps in the road,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But I’m really grateful he continued to stick with it and fight through some of the issues he was having.”
Thomas was a 1,000-yard rusher and had 21 touchdowns last season but was away from team at times this season and missed the Washington State game. He struggled through the middle of the season but showed renewed speed and power in time for Utah’s quest for a Rose Bowl return.
“It was great to see Tavion in his last game at Rice-Eccles get back to his old self. I’m really proud of him and glad that he’s weathered the storm,” Whittingham said.
Rising went 20-for-33 through the air for 219 yards with an interception to boost Utah’s home winning streak to 14.
“Once we eliminated our mistakes, things started to go our way,” Rising said.
The Utes initially struggled to execute against Stanford, which allows the most rushing yards of any team in the conference. After three fourth-down conversions, including a fake punt, Utah finally scored on a Rising-to-Devaughn Vele 9-yard TD pass in the second quarter.
After that, the floodgates opened and Utah rolled to 514 total yards with 279 on the ground. At the same time, Stanford’s entire offense failed to outgain Thomas, garnering just 177 total yards.
“We are just doing our job. A lot of the mistakes that were happening early in the season were guys trying to make a big play and not doing their assignments,” said Jonah Elliss, who had 1.5 sacks.
On Stanford’s second drive, Tanner McKee evaded the rush and threw a 51-yard pass and then snuck in for a one-yard touchdown one play later.
In the end, McKee passed for 155 yards but didn’t have much time to throw and was sacked seven times.
“It’s going to be a dirty pocket. It’s going to be tight coverage. When we have those one-on-one opportunities with all the pressure, and we get the protection, we got to hit them,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
The Utah defense held Stanford to just 22 yards rushing and recorded seven sacks, two by Simote Pepa.
Leading receiver Dalton Kincaid returned from a one-game absence because of an injury, and caught four passes for 35 yards.
Backup tight ends Thomas Yassmin and Logan Kendall each caught touchdown passes. For Kendall, it was his first career TD catch, thrown by freshman Nate Johnson for his first career touchdown pass.
With its 14th straight win at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah completed a second consecutive undefeated home season.
The Utes, who beat Oregon twice last year, will travel to Autzen Stadium next Saturday at 8:30 p.m. with the winner gaining the inside track to the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks suffered its first conference loss Saturday, falling to Washington, 37-34.