Utah is inching closer to possibly playing in a BCS bowl game, but its focus is on winning the Mountain West Conference for the first time in four years.
The eighth-ranked Utes look to clinch at least a share of the Mountain West crown on Saturday when they visit San Diego State, which is winless in conference play this season.
Utah (10-0, 6-0) rallied for a 13-10 home victory over then-No. 11 TCU on Nov. 6 to take a half-game lead over the Horned Frogs in the conference. The Utes have won 18 of their last 19 games overall, including 11 of the past 12 in Mountain West action.
That successful stretch has earned them their highest ranking in the AP poll since holding the No. 7 spot for two weeks during the 2004 season, when they finished 12-0 and became the first non-BCS conference team to reach one of the top four bowl games.
Utah, among the few remaining unbeatens in the Football Bowl Subdivision, sits seventh in the BCS standings and must finish in the top 12 to earn the chance to play in another BCS bowl.
But before looking toward January, Utah’s attention is on San Diego State (1-9, 0-6), which has dropped seven of the last nine matchups in this series. A win Saturday will secure the Utes at least a share of the Mountain West for the first time since winning back-to-back titles in 2003-04.
“(We) have to play our game and stay focused. Nothing is on our mind except (San Diego State),” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We can guarantee ourselves at least a share of the conference title with a win and our focal point is getting that done on Saturday.”
The Utes have outscored the Aztecs 61-14 in taking the last two contests - most recently 23-7 at home on Oct. 13, 2007 - and are trying to win three straight against them for the first time since 1999-2001.
Utah enters following last week’s thrilling victory over TCU. After trailing the entire game, Brian Johnson completed a 9-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Freddie Brown with 48 seconds left, and defensive back Robert Johnson sealed the win with an interception on the ensuing series.
Brian Johnson finished 24-for-39 for 230 yards and a TD, earning the conference’s player of the week honors. He was 22-of-29 for 220 yards and a touchdown last season versus San Diego State, and went 31-for-47 for a career-high 417 yards in a 28-19 home loss to the Aztecs on Oct. 15, 2005.
Brown, who leads the Utes with 568 yards and five touchdowns, made nine catches for a career-high 105 yards versus TCU.
He and Johnson are part of an offense that ranks third in the Mountain West with 392.3 yards and 33.8 points per game. While that unit was outgained 416-275 last week and has been held to 13 points in back-to-back contests, it likely won’t face a challenge versus a San Diego State squad that has allowed conference highs in both yards (466.0) - the ninth-most in the nation - and points (36.2).
San Diego State remained winless in Mountain West play with a 41-21 loss at then-No. 17 BYU last Saturday.
“You have to get through these times to get better. You just have to,” said Aztecs coach Rocky Long, whose team is trying to avoid losing seven straight overall for the first time since dropping nine in a row from Oct. 8, 1983-Sept. 9, 1984.
San Diego State allowed 421 yards, but held BYU to a season-low 104 on the ground despite having the second-worst run defense in the FBS (273.9). Utah is averaging 171.0 rushing yards.
The Aztecs, who have lost nine consecutive conference games dating to last season, have dropped 19 straight to ranked opponents since a 28-24 home win over then-No. 16 Wyoming on Nov. 7, 1996.