Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows his team’s impressive performance has earned the program national recognition, but he also knows plenty of work remains this season.
Whittingham and the 10th-ranked Utes return from their bye week on Saturday, seeking to remain unbeaten as they visit New Mexico in a Mountain West Conference matchup.
Utah (8-0, 4-0) hasn’t played since a 49-16 home victory over Colorado State on Oct. 18, which pushed its winning streak to nine games dating to last season. The Utes have won 16 of its last 17 contests overall, and nine of 10 in Mountain West play.
The run of success has also helped the Utes to their highest ranking since they held the No. 10 spot for three straight weeks (Oct.10-24) during the 2004 season, when they went 12-0 and became the first non-BCS conference team to reach one of the top four bowl games.
Utah now begins November as one of eight remaining unbeatens in the Football Bowl Subdivision and has a chance to return to a BCS bowl. Whittingham, though, won’t allow his team to let the success go to its head.
“It’s a positive for our players and program to be recognized. But it’s still early. We have four games to go,” Whittingham said. “The recognition we have received is a plus for the program, no doubt. We’re not oblivious to it, but our focus is on our upcoming opponent.”
Whittingham’s Utes have reason to be wary of this weekend’s game against New Mexico (4-5, 2-3). Though the Utes lead the all-time series 30-17-2 and posted a 28-10 home victory on Nov. 17 last season, the Lobos have won five of the last eight matchups.
Before the bye week, Utah rolled up a season-high 549 yards of offense while beating Colorado State. Quarterback Brian Johnson finished 18-for-26 for 185 yards and two touchdowns, and tied Alex Smith’s school record of 21 wins as a starter.
Johnson’s backup Corbin Louks also got in the game and ran five times for 109 yards and two TDs, while junior running back Matt Asiata had eight carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns. All told, the Utes gained 327 rushing yards - a season high and their most since amassing 354 in a win over BYU on Nov. 20, 2004.
“It was definitely our most balanced game and we really got the spread run game going,” Johnson said
Utah, averaging a conference-best 39.0 points per game, has been even better on the other side of the ball. The Utes are holding opponents to 264.0 total yards per game - the sixth-lowest average in the nation.
The already impressive unit could get a boost Saturday if starting nose tackle Kenape Eliapo makes his return from the broken foot he suffered in the season opener.
Regardless of whether Eliapo plays, Utah can expect to be challenged by Lobos senior running back Rodney Ferguson, whose 108.1 rushing yards per game lead the Mountain West and are ranked 18th nationally.
Ferguson had 19 carries for 107 yards - his fifth 100-yard effort of the season - and a touchdown in the Lobos’ 23-10 loss at Air Force on Oct. 23.
New Mexico forced three first-quarter turnovers, but squandered an early 10-0 lead. Quarterback Brad Gruner’s fumble was returned 96 yards for a Falcons touchdown on the last play of the first quarter - the start of 23 unanswered points for Air Force to end the contest.
“It changed the momentum for that moment of the game, but it shouldn’t have kept us from coming back and getting the momentum back on our side,” coach Rocky Long told New Mexico’s official Web site.
The Lobos have dropped eight of their last nine games against ranked opponents, although the lone victory in that span came against the Utes. New Mexico beat then-No. 24 Utah 47-35 on the road on Oct. 25, 2003.
New Mexico has won three straight games at University Stadium overall, including a 70-7 rout of San Diego State two weeks ago, and three of its last four home matchups against Utah.