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Utah-Washington previewed the new Pac-12

Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire

The message emanated from Salt Lake City, scene of the Pac-12’s marquee Week 9 matchup on Saturday afternoon: The conference long known for explosive, innovative offense and final scores that resemble basketball games is now a league defined by line play, physicality and guts.

Utah came into the Pac-12 employing such a style, an immediate deviation from the norm for the new kids. It’s taken time, but Utah’s steadily made it work to such a point that Saturday looked like a conference title game preview.

Arguably the biggest game for Utah since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 provided what was perhaps the league’s best contest of 2016, with the Utes going toe-to-toe with Washington’s hard-nosed approach.

“This is real football, Pac-12 football,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said in his postgame press conference, via GoHuskies.com.

Petersen may have unofficially labeled the new era of Pac-12 football.

Sure, there’s still plenty of offensive firepower and innovative offenses, but with Stanford winning three championships in four seasons employing an old-school approach, and Washington and Utah now rolling with a similar style, the landscape has shifted.

Petersen’s assessment also serves as a hearty endorsement for Kyle Whittingham’s Utes, and a testament to where Utah is at this juncture. It’s never been closer to the pinnacle of the conference than it is now.

Just how close is even quantifiable: 26 yards. The Utes drove to the Washington 26-yard line on the final possession, threatening to score a game-tying touchdown in the final minute — perhaps even a game-winner.

Whittingham’s the bold type who just might have opted to go for the win with a two-point conversion. It certainly would have been an interesting decision, given Arizona had the opportunity to do exactly that in Week 4, and hindsight dictates the Wildcats probably should have.

A sack of quarterback Troy Williams took the decision out of Whittingham’s hands. Perhaps he’ll have it in Santa Clara five weeks from now if there is a return match.

The possibility is very real. On Saturday, Washington and Utah looked like the two best teams in the Pac-12. Perhaps Colorado has something to say about that, and USC has come on nicely since starting 1-3, the last of those three losses coming Sept. 23 at Utah.

But at this moment in time, the Huskies and Utes showed more championship mettle than any two other teams in the league.

Week 9 delivered the kind of performance befitting the College Gameday marquee, with the lead exchanging hands in between lengthy ties.

Washington showed just a little bit more of that mettle when it counted most, and that may be the quality that separates the Huskies enough to run the table through the regular season.

The Huskies escaped what on paper appears to be their toughest matchup beating Utah where the Utes are rarely bested: in the trenches.

Washington offensive lineman blew Utah defenders off the point of attack, opening massive holes for running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. The duo both exceeded 7 yards per carry, with Gaskin putting forth his biggest game as a Husky, perhaps not statistically, but in significance: 151 yards and a score on 19 carries.

The Gaskin-Coleman tag team has flourished all season operating behind a physical offensive line, and Saturday was the Husky front five’s masterpiece. Utah’s big bodies fared well for the rushing game, as well, opening things up enough for Joe Williams to tally a game-high 172 yards.

He might get another shot to do even more against the imposing Washington front seven. Despite the loss, Utah still controls its path to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

That’s a path increasingly paved more with physicality than flash.

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