‘He’s 1-0’: Fifth-string quarterback Luke Bottari scores two touchdowns in Utah’s 23-17 Pac-12 finale win over Colorado

Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown against Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown against Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The long journey of Utah’s 2023 season led us here.

In the final Pac-12 game Rice-Eccles Stadium would ever see, fifth-string quarterback Luke Bottari got the starting nod against Colorado.

With Cam Rising out for the season, an injury to Bryson Barnes, Nate Johnson informing coaches of his decision to enter his name into the transfer portal on Monday, Utah wanting to preserve Brandon Rose’s impending medical redshirt and freshman Mack Howard not trusted with the keys yet, the Utes went with Bottari.

Bottari went on his own journey to get to this point, suiting up as Utah’s starting quarterback in the regular-season finale.

A junior college transfer from the College of San Mateo, Bottari walked onto the team in 2022. The tough part about playing quarterback is that there’s only one spot, usually with four or five players competing for it.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound California native never saw the field in 2022 and in May of 2023, transferred to Cal and even participated in some fall practices.

That was the end of the Bottari story at Utah, or so we thought.

But then Bottari’s name popped back up on Utah’s roster during fall camp. The NCAA rules are different for graduate transfers, with the NCAA stating, “Student-athletes who will enroll at another school after graduating are now allowed to enter the Transfer Portal at any time.”

“Graduate makes the transfer rules a little less strict, I believe. So I was able to hit the portal in August during fall camp and was able to have the opportunity to come back to Utah,” Bottari said. “... I was just thankful that they welcomed me back with open arms and yeah, I was super juiced to get back.”

Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) warms up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) warms up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Tao Johnson (15) warms up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Tao Johnson (15) warms up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders runs onto the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders runs onto the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instruction in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instruction in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes runner Sione Vaki (28) stretches toward the goal line in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes runner Sione Vaki (28) stretches toward the goal line in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) celebrates a touchdown with Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) celebrates a touchdown with Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown on Nov. 25, 2023.
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown against Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) recovers a Colorado Buffaloes fumble in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) recovers a Colorado Buffaloes fumble in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A fan dressed Santa cheers in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A fan dressed Santa cheers in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (21) and Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) sack Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (21) and Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) sack Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn (5) and Utah Utes cornerback Smith Snowden (17) tackle Colorado Buffaloes running back Dylan Edwards (3) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn (5) and Utah Utes cornerback Smith Snowden (17) tackle Colorado Buffaloes running back Dylan Edwards (3) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) throws against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) throws against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Jaylon Glover (1) runs for a big gain against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Jaylon Glover (1) runs for a big gain against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utes honor Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utes honor Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Former Ute coach Ron McBride at the game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Former Ute coach Ron McBride at the game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the clock at the ed of the game with the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the clock at the ed of the game with the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) tackles Colorado Buffaloes running back Dylan Edwards (3) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) tackles Colorado Buffaloes running back Dylan Edwards (3) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Connor O’Toole (81) and Utah Utes defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa (57) hurry Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Connor O’Toole (81) and Utah Utes defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa (57) hurry Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders meet at the end of the game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders meet at the end of the game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (8) sacks Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Ryan Staub (16) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown against Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) scores a touchdown against Colorado Buffaloes linebacker LaVonta Bentley (20) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) runs against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) gets his face mask grabbed in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) gets his face mask grabbed in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Smith Snowden (17) makes a diving tackle in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes cornerback Smith Snowden (17) makes a diving tackle in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instruction in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham shouts instruction in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) takes a snap in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) takes a snap in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against Colorado Buffaloes safety Jaden Milliner-Jones (31) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes running back Ja’Quinden Jackson (3) runs against Colorado Buffaloes safety Jaden Milliner-Jones (31) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Cheerleaders carry flags as the team takes the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Cheerleaders carry flags as the team takes the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Luke Bottari (15) celebrates his touchdown against the Colorado Buffaloes in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders watches warmups in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders watches warmups in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. Utah won 23-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Even with Bottari back in the fold, no one realistically expected him to get on the field this season.

But here he was, jogging onto the field to quarterback the Utes against Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes.

“Main goal was just to win the game, do whatever we had to do,” Bottari said.

And what the Utes did was rush the ball. A lot.

Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig kept the ball on the ground nearly 84% of the time and dialed up 10 straight rushes to open the game, including eight consecutive on Utah’s opening touchdown drive.

Bottari had two touchdown runs in his first Division I football appearance.

“I think it took a couple seconds to hit me for sure, but just super juiced to celebrate with my guys,” Bottari said of his first career touchdown, which came on Utah’s opening drive.

That plan to keep the ball on the ground worked, and the Utes closed out the regular season victorious, beating Colorado 23-17 in Utah’s final Pac-12 game.

“When you’re able to run the ball like that, Glove’s (Jaylon Glover), having a game, makes it a lot easier on the quarterback for sure,” Bottari said.

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In his 10 total passing attempts, Bottari looked like he belonged out there. He completed six passes for 61 yards. He had a couple of missed passes, but had about as good of an outing as you could expect from a fifth-string walk-on that had about five days to prepare.

Four of those six completions were for 10 or more yards, including an 18-yard pass to Landen King, who made an impressive one-handed snag. Mikey Matthews, Munir McClain and Luca Caldarella all hauled in 10-plus-yard completions. Bottari also had a 5-yard pass to Matthews to move the chains on fourth-and-3, the second of two fourth-down conversions through the air for the Utes.

“He’s 1-0, so he did what we needed him to do. Didn’t throw the ball a bunch. I think we threw 10 times thereabouts and he did a great job of managing the offense,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

What once was thought early in the offseason to feature Utah’s Rising and Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders under center turned into a quarterback battle between Buffaloes backup Ryan Staub and Bottari.

For all of the hype, glamour and flashiness Deion Sanders brought Colorado this offseason, Saturday’s contest at Rice-Eccles Stadium was a gritty affair, a war of attrition.

The game was won on the ground, beginning with Glover had by far his best game as a Ute, rushing for 107 yards on 17 carries.

“Jaylen Glover had his breakout game as a Ute, far his best game. Over 100 yards, got a game ball,” Whittingham said.

The sophomore had a few shifty highlight runs — a 30-yard run on third-and-5, then a 19-yard carry on second-and-15 that included an ankle-breaking juke.

“When I get to the second level, that’s when my personality comes out, but it all starts up front. So I just want to say thank you to the big guys,” Glover said.

Ja’Quinden Jackson looked healthier, toting the rock 21 times for 68 yards, leading the Utes in carries.

“Ja’Quinden Jackson added some very valuable yards,” Whittingham said.

Sione Vaki, who’s also been battling injuries, was used as another option at running back, getting seven carries for 68 yards and showing why he’s been a force on offense with blazing speed.

Utah’s offensive line turned in a stellar performance, keeping Bottari clean and opening up some big holes for the running backs.

Colorado knew Utah was going to run the ball. But the Buffaloes couldn’t stop it most of the time.

Utah totaled 268 yards on the ground, compared to 37 for Colorado. Of Utah’s seven real drives (the Utes had eight drives, but one was just to run out the clock at the end of the first half), five ended in scores — two touchdowns and three field goals. The final drive didn’t result in points, but secured the Utes the win.

The Utes controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for 39:04, while Colorado had it for 20:56. Stringing together long, clock killing drives isn’t easy to do, but Utah made it look easy on Saturday.

The only real negative offensively was red-zone play-calling. Especially on Utah’s third drive of the game, Ludwig’s calls inside the 20-yard line were a cause of consternation among the Utah faithful.

After driving down the field with a mix of Jackson, Glover and Vaki inside runs, Ludwig got too fancy with the ball at the Colorado 5-yard line with 3:40 left in the half, Utah up by three.

Glover ran for two yards, then Utah followed with a Bottari keeper for one yard. On third down, though, Ludwig dialed up a screen pass that was blown up behind the line of scrimmage, leading to a chorus of boos from the fans in attendance.

While Utah held Colorado to 17 points, below the Buffaloes’ average of 29.2 points per game and forced a huge turnover, the Utes still had defensive lapses.

The much maligned Buffaloes offensive line, which entered the game eight sacks away from an FBS record for most sacks allowed in a season, was able to protect Staub fairly well, aside from a strip sack by Connor O’Toole. Staub was sacked only twice.

Colorado was able to fool Utah on a double pass similar to the one that Arizona did just last week against the Utes. Nobody was around Dylan Edwards on the pass from receiver Jimmy Horn Jr.

Staub finished 17 for 24 for 195 yards and a score.

Utah’s secondary didn’t have a stellar game, with Colorado’s receivers springing open a few too many times.

With a chance to essentially end the game, the defense allowed an 84-yard drive, including what looked like a coverage breakdown on a wide-open 25-yard pass to Michael Harrison on fourth-and-4, followed two plays later by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Travis Hunter.

“We did give up some stuff in the throw game, which was disappointing. We were too porous, I guess you could say, in our pass defense,” Whittingham said.

After that Colorado touchdown with 7:31 left in the game, which cut Utah’s lead to six points, the Utes responded with a 12-play, 49-yard drive that milked all 7:31 off the game clock.

Bottari threw just a single pass, which was incomplete, on the first play of the drive, then it was exclusively on the ground for the rest of the series. Bottari had a key keeper for a first down, Jackson took the wildcat first down for another, then did it again later in the drive on third-and-2 to salt the game away.

Utah ends the regular season at 8-4, with a bowl game to be announced, which could get the Utes to nine wins.

After nine key season-ending injuries — quarterback Rising, tight end Brant Kuithe, tight end Thomas Yassmin, running back Chris Curry, running back Micah Bernard, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, linebacker Lander Barton, defensive end Logan Fano and defensive end Jonah Elliss — and a host of others that missed time throughout the year, it’s been a fairly successful season for the Utes.

“So proud of these guys for all the adversity, for lack of a better word, that we battled this year to come out 8-4,” Whittingham said.