Chapter Seven: Utah
Despite its small size, Rice Eccles Stadium is never an easy place to play, thanks to its legion of screaming fans and their pride for forcing false starts. The Phoenix would find that out the hard way in week seven, escaping with their undefeated season by the barest of margins.
Things got off to a good enough start, with Willie Maddox picking off Ute quarterback Travis Wilson for six on the game’s opening drive.
When Utah ended up punting on the next possession, the Phoenix were poised to go up two scores and roll to a big early lead, as they have so often done in recent weeks.
It would not happen in this one, though. They were in for a bird fight, and they knew it — Ute cornerback Hipolito Corporan would match Maddox with an interception of his own, and a few minutes later, Utah tied the game at 7-7, thanks to a Jarrell Oliver 21 yard run.
The Phoenix would prove unable to convert on 4th and 6 on their next drive, giving an extra possession back to the Utes. They could only manage three points and a 10-7 lead, though, thanks to a pass deflection on third down by outside linebacker Ethan Yip.
Phoenix running back and Heisman frontrunner Josh Toyofuku would spring loose down the right side for 55 yards and an eventual 3 yard touchdown just a few minutes later, but the 14-10 score did not hold for long, as Wilson used his legs to score again with under two minutes to go in the second quarter.
California fumbled away its next possession on a bad pitch, ending a nightmarish 30 minutes of play for the Phoenix, who found themselves trailing only by 17-14.
“Sloppy, sloppy play,” Coach White said of his team’s first half. “I really got after them in the locker room. These guys aren’t good enough yet to overlook anybody. I don’t care if it’s Utah or Utah State.”
A tackle for loss by California defensive tackle Rico Ross helped force Utah to punt coming out of the half, but Le was unable to do anything with that possession, eventually throwing the second of his three interceptions on the right sideline.
Both teams stalled on offense for a while after that, going scoreless for several minutes before Toyofuku caught a 30 yard touchdown out of the Terio formation — working from the right slot, he simply blew right past two Ute defenders in the middle of the field and trotted into the end zone to cut the deficit to 24-21, Utah.
Ute running back Devontae Booker took in a touchdown of his own to make the score 24-21, but California retook a 27-24 lead behind a Nam Le 50 yard touchdown run off of an option keeper, although they would miss the ensuing extra point.
The Utes would then seize control of the game, starting a run of 14 consecutive points behind a short touchdown run by Troy McCormick. Justin Thomas would intercept Le for a third time, setting up a 4th and goal touchdown pass from Travis Wilson to push Utah’s lead to 38-27 with a little over five minutes to play.
“We’ve been in tough situations,” Le said. “I didn’t play well today, but we’ve been in tough situations, so I was still ready to go then. Ready to lead. I promised the guys in the huddle I could still do it.”
And lead he did, as Le took the Phoenix offense down the field on a 9 play, 2 minute and 37 second drive, before bowing out for Toyofuku’s third touchdown of the day. Though they would not convert the 2 point attempt, that left them down only 38-33.
A rare stop by California would give them one more shot with 2:49 to go. Despite his struggles all game long, Le did live up to his word, directing the Phoenix to the Utah 8, and then finishing with the game-winning touchdown pass to Terrance 1116 with just 13 seconds to play.
40-38 would be the final, giving the Phoenix yet another last minute victory.
“We just know that when the game is close, we’re still in it,” Le said. “There are no nerves.”
Offensive Stats: Le – 19/30, 250, 2 TD, 3 INT, 7 car, 109, 1 TD, 1 fumble; Toyofuku – 17-152-2, 3 catches, 45 yards, 1 TD; Wolf: 5-79; Williams: 4-36; Novak: 4-57
Defensive Stats: Moty: 11 tackles, 1 TFL; Romanov: 6 tackles, 1 TFL; Paraon: 5 tackles; Yip/Yee: 4 tackles , pass defensed
Game Eight: UCLA
Normally, it is the Phoenix who have red zone troubles. Whether by turnover by a lack of execution, California’s deficiency in this area has often caused them close calls, if not losses in recent years. In fact, Walter White’s squad has ranked toward the bottom of the country in that statistic all season, and has yet to show improvement there, despite his third season running the Phoenix.
In week eight, they received a bit of an unexpected delight, though, getting a front row seat to see another team suffer through the same struggles.
That unfortunate team happened to be the Bruins — despite three different trips inside the California 20 on Saturday, UCLA only came away with a total of nine points, which would prove crucial in their 35-24 loss.
It was billed as a Heisman vs Heisman showdown, with Phoenix running back Josh Toyofuku and Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley widely considered the top two contenders for college football’s most prestigious award. Though Toyofuku was held below 100 yards for the first time in a month, it was clear he came away the winner, scoring three times on the afternoon to break the California single season record for rushing touchdowns.
Hundley, on the other hand, fared much worse, completing 16-of-20 passes, but for a paltry 180 yards and a touchdown. He also fumbled on a huge hit from nickel back Brett Barber, which Ethan Yip recovered. Despite Hundley’s efficiency, it was clear that the Bruins were bottled up on the afternoon, with their only offensive touchdown coming in garbage time, and another on a kickoff return from Steven Manfro.
After the game, Toyofuku continued refusing comment on the Heisman, opting to hand the podium over to Jaemie Paraon instead.
“I’m not usually one to get caught up in the award races. The hardware isn’t all that important to me. But there’s no denying that Brett Hundley is talented. That’s why people are talking about him,” said Paraon. “We knew he wasn’t going to make it easy for us, but we wanted to play OUR game, not theirs, and I think we did well containing him.”
“It wasn’t like we felt we had to make a statement for Josh. His game does all the talking.”
Offensive Stats: Le – 24 of 33, 289 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 13 carries, 50 yards; Toyofuku 22-97-3; Novak 8-86-1; Williams 7-90; Wolf: 5-83
Defensive Stats: Romanov – 7 tackles (4 TFL), sack; Yee: 4 tackles; Moty: 4 tackles; Paraon: 3 tackles; Yip: Fumble rec
Game 9: Tennessee
Another week, another close call for the Phoenix, who won their fourth game decided by seven points or less this year, and their second decided with under a minute to play.
The unlucky victim this week? The Tennessee Volunteers.
Despite leading 27-23 with under 1:20 to play, they would prove unable to hang on, giving up a three yard touchdown to Nam Le for the eventual winning score with 11 ticks of the clock.
The junior quarterback said that the play was a designed pass out of a four wide formation, but that Coach White had given him the right to run, based on his own judgment.
“I was never going to pass,” Le said. “In that kind of situation, with that many bodies in that little space, I thought it would be safer to just try to run it in myself, which I did. Thankfully, the guys did a good job of holding them in the end zone. I probably don’t get in if Isaac, Ethan and Josh aren’t worth respecting as receivers — but because they are, they had to stick with them, instead of chasing me.”
Josh Toyofuku was, surprisingly, held out of the end zone for the first time all year. The Long Beach Poly product was a huge focus for the Volunteers from the start, who held him to just 21 yards on nine first half carries, although he would respond by doubling that number with his first touch after halftime. He finished with 90 yards, a season low, although Ethan Novak and Isaac Williams both chipped in two touchdowns and 153 yards receiving of their own to help carry the load.
Middle linebacker Rondell McDougal came up with two key stops to force field goals on two Tennessee drives, which would prove to be a huge factor in the game’s final score.
“Rondell was huge today,” head coach Walter White said after the game. “Huge. We probably don’t win without him.”
But they did, and improved to 9-0 in the process. With three games to play, plus a likely appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a bowl game to come, this is already the most successful season in Phoenix history.
“We’re not content with that,” outside linebacker and team prankster Artem Romanov said after receiving the news. “That’s what Ethan told me to say, at least. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with it. You know, other than the whole me not punting thing.”
Cornerback Ben Yee also took time to honor the team’s accomplishments, uttering a concise, but true statement to close the presser: “We’re the best.”
Offensive Stats: Le – 20/24, 252, 2 TD, 1 INT; 7 carries, 60 yards, 1 TD; Toyofuku – 17-90; Williams – 7-100-1; Novak 4-53-1; Wolf – 6-68
Defensive Notables: Paraon: 8 tackles; McDougal: 7 tackles, 2 TFL; Romanov: 5 tackles; Moty: 3 tackles, 1 sack