No. 17 Utah is in the Pac-12 title game Friday against No. 11 Washington despite starting 0-2 in conference play and losing its starting quarterback and running back with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
That alone indicates the toughness of the Utes, who won the Pac-12 South title with a 6-3 conference record while going 9-3 overall.
"What's been consistent is the leadership of the team and how they just bounce back," Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday.
Utah's rough start in the Pac-12 included a 21-7 home loss to Washington in the conference opener. In mid-September, senior linebacker Cody Barton, a co-captain of the team, said boldly, "I'm confident we'll see 'em again in the Pac-12 championship game."
Barton told the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, "I had belief in this team that we could do it. ... And here we are."
The Huskies were a preseason pick in the league media poll to win the North and play in the title game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Utah was picked second in the South behind USC.
A USC player has proven to be a source of motivation for Utah. Linebacker Jordan Iosefa said the Utes were "just a regular team," when the Trojans lost 41-28 in Salt Lake City in mid-October.
"We just messed up," Iosefa said.
Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae, other players, graduate assistants and the Utes' football program and athletic department have used the hashtag #justaregularteam on social media as a rallying point.
"That really bugged me, so I was like, 'All right, I guess we're just a regular team then; we'll see.' That type of mentality," Anae told reporters. "Still got a lot to prove, still got to win this Pac-12 championship. That's when we'll keep our heads high."
The turning point in the season was Utah's decisive 40-21 win at Stanford after the Utes lost to Washington and at Washington State to start the conference season.
Last month, the Utes then faced the challenge of losing quarterback Tyler Huntley to a broken collarbone in a defeat at ASU and running back Zack Moss to a season-ending knee injury four days later. Freshman quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Armand Shyne have handled their greater responsibilities efficiently.
"When guys go down, it's not like we're casting them aside at all," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's more a mentality of a guy being ready to go ... having prepared the right way and not going through the motions, and about the supporting cast, picking up the slack."