No. 21 Utah in title hunt as it faces struggling Colorado

Utes quarterback Jason Shelley (15) looks to pass during the second half against the Oregon Ducks at Rice-Eccles Stadium.Photo Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

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The No. 21 Utes (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) are hoping the Buffaloes (5-5, 2-5) are not ready to rumble and are more like the team that has been beaten the last five weeks after starting 5-0.

Utah still has its sights on a Pac-12 South title although coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley (broken collarbone) and running back Zack Moss (knee) for the rest of the regular season.

Despite their absence against Oregon last week, the Utes prevailed behind redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley (262 passing yards) and reserve running back Armand Shyne (career-high 174 yards rushing).

Their play is indicative of Utah’s resolve after starting the Pac-12 season 0-2 with losses to Washington and Washington State. The Utes still have a chance at the Pac-12 South title if they beat Colorado and ASU loses one of its next two games at Oregon and Arizona.

“It’s a credit to our players,” Whittingham said during his weekly news conference Monday. “We haven’t been perfect; we’ve obviously stumbled along the way, but they’re resilient. They keep coming back. … That’s a trademark of this football team for certain, their ability to respond to adversity.”

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre is facing some adversity of his own in the midst of the five-game losing streak. Some of the Denver media have questioned his future with the program. He is in his sixth season as Colorado’s coach with only one winning season (10-4 in 2016 when the Buffaloes won the Pac-12 South).

The Buffaloes can become bowl eligible with a win over Utah or next week at California.

After Saturday’s 31-7 loss to Washington State, he was asked if he has ever had a season go downhill like this one.

MacIntyre cut off the question and said, “I’ve never had a season where going into the 10th game of the year we had nine starters out that started the first game; nine. And four other significant players out. Basically, a third of your guys that you play, that you count on to win games, aren’t out there.”

Star receiver Laviska Shenault, cornerback Delrick Abrams Jr., kicker James Stefanou and other important contributors have missed significant playing time.

Shenault returned against Washington State after missing three games with a toe injury. He had 10 receptions for 102 yards.

Utah’s offense did not skip a beat with Shelley and Shyne replacing Huntley and Moss. The Utes outgained Oregon by a 494-405 margin and won the turnover battle (1-0).

Defensively, Utah is solid, ranking 10th nationally against the run, allowing only 101.7 yards per game.

“I see big, physical, aggressive dudes,” MacIntyre said of the Utah defense. “They’re a very physical football team and we’re going to have to be extremely physical against them.”

Colorado has struggled running the ball this season, ranking eighth in the Pac-12 with 153.4 yards per game. Travon McMillian has only six rushing touchdowns and is averaging 91 yards rushing per game.

The lack of a consistent running game has put pressure on quarterback Steven Montez, who has completed 66.6 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Colorado has allowed 25 sacks, which is the same Utah has allowed.

Shelley will experience his first road start.

“He is unflappable in practice and that is how he was on Saturday afternoon (against Oregon),” Whittingham said. “He took great care of the football. That is probably the No. 1 thing. We had over 500 yards of offense.

“We had zero turnovers and if you can do that, regardless of what happens, it is probably going to be a good outcome.”

The Utes are 5-2 against the Buffaloes since the teams joined the Pac-12 in 2011. That includes a 2-1 record in Boulder, Colo., with all three of those games decided by a touchdown or less.