Home field continues to be Utah's overwhelming advantage

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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SALT LAKE CITY -- When the University of Utah signed a deal with Under Armour for the company to be its official apparel supplier, the Utes really took the company's slogan to heart.

"Our guys know we are an Under Armour school, 'Protect this house,' and we take that very seriously," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It is something that is in the forefront of our minds."

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Not only has protecting the house been in the players' and coaches' minds, but it has played out that way on the field as well. When Utah placekicker Joe Phillips booted home the game-winning field goal in overtime to beat No. 15 Pittsburgh 27-24 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it became the Utes' 18th straight win at home.

"It seems to be picking up ground," Whittingham said of the winning streak. "We've had sellout crowds for I don't know how many in a row, and that is a huge part of it. We have a great home-field advantage with our fans"

In reality, the Utes ended last season with a 38-7 win over San Diego State in a non-sellout, but for the last two years the team has had an average attendance more than the 45,017-seat capacity. Thursday's season opener included a standing-room only 45,730, the third largest in Utah football history.

The winning streak began with a Sept. 15, 2007, win over then No. 11-ranked UCLA, the first of four consecutive wins over ranked opponents in Salt Lake City -- No. 11 TCU in 2008, No. 16 BYU in 2008 and No. 15 Pitt tonight. (Although it was the team's first win over a ranked opponent in a home opener. They're 1-5 all-time now.)

DeVonte Christopher gets the crowd going with his 61-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. (AP)  
DeVonte Christopher gets the crowd going with his 61-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. (AP)  
Besides simply putting the thought of protecting a house in players' minds, there are several other factors to why Utah has made it nearly impossible for opponents to emerge with a victory. Whittingham alluded to the crowd, and he is particularly fond of the student section nicknamed the MUSS -- the Mighty Utah Student Section.

"We have the MUSS standing for four quarters and doing a great job," Whittingham said. "They do the third-down jump."

Another factor is the altitude. Rice-Eccles sits at 4,657 feet about sea level.

"The air. It's hard to breathe in here," said Utah's sophomore wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, who had a career night with eight catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. "You go away for three days of running and you get back out there and it is just tough to get used to.

"This is just a great college atmosphere in here," he added. "Luckily, since I've been here every crowd has been a sellout and I just love this great atmosphere. It is just special."

Probably the biggest reason for the success is the players.

"You hope you have recruited the right way," Whittingham said. "You have to have the players with the necessary talent to get the job done."

Thursday night the Utes had that.

Quarterback Jordan Wynn finished 21 of 36 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Christopher had a breakout game. Linebacker Chaz Walker had 11 tackles in his first collegiate start. Offensive tackle John Cullen didn't surrender a sack to Pitt's All-American defensive end Greg Romeus, and the Utes defense as a whole held All-American running back Dion Lewis to a net of only 75 yards on 25 carries.

"I thought every player on the team made plays tonight," said Walker.

So despite turning the ball over three times -- two fumbles by receiver Shaky Smithson and an interception thrown by quarterback Wynn in the end zone -- 11 penalties for 99 yards, a blocked punt that set up the Panthers at the Utah 8-yard line, and nine players making their first career starts, the Utes once again found a way to get the job done at home.

"Bottom line tonight, we made one more play tonight than the Pitt Panthers," said Whittingham. "They are a Top 25 football team in my opinion without a doubt."

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