What defines a big game? How is it any different than the others on the schedule and how can it impact a program's history? These can be difficult questions to ask, because big games are left up to interpretation. However, I think we can all agree Oregon State fits this bill. The Beavers are coming off a huge win over the top-ranked Trojans last Thursday, Utah is creeping up in the polls, they're a well respected BCS team and it will provide the Utes their last shot at a decent program until they play Texas Christian later next month. In fact, Oregon State is the biggest game of the year thus far, even bigger than Michigan and Air Force.
That is both good and bad. It's good because it provides the fans with great excitement and the Utes with a possible headline making win. It's bad because there is a lot riding on this game and it's not the traditional mid-season cupcake conference opponent, which means it will be difficult. Oregon State looks far more intimidating today than they did a week ago.
So what does that all mean? Well with the victory, Utah will get a good deal of positive publicity. They'll move up in the polls and if it's impressive enough, like the Cougars' win over UCLA, they could actually move ahead in the BCS race. But that will require victory and that will be no easy task for Whittingham, who has a mixed record in really big games. So while we look ahead to Oregon State, I also thought it would be interesting to look back at the biggest games in Whittingham's career and how he fared.
Which takes us back to the original question, what defines a big game? I believe those are season defining and bowl games, along with the Holy War, regardless of what is at stake. With that as out outline, here's my take on the biggest games of the Whittingham era.
Arizona, 27-24 win
This is big because it's the first. Utah was coming off a 12-0 and season, had the second longest winning streak in the nation and a lot of questions after Urban Meyer had left for Florida. If the Whittingham era opens with a loss here, how does he recover? This game was on national television and kept the Utes rolling.
@ TCU, 20-23 loss
I debated whether or not to put this game on this list, but this was a fairly big game for Whittingham. It was his first conference game, his first real road test and TCU was only two weeks removed from a stunning upset on the road against a top ten Oklahoma team. This was a close game throughout, but Utah blew a late lead and some questionable officiating in both regulation and overtime cost them.
@ BYU, 41-34 win
No other game was more important in the 2005 season than this one. The Utes were facing the disastrous prospects of a losing season, their first loss to their rivals in four years and a poor end to a poor season. Without starting quarterback Brian Johnson, Utah walked into LaVell Edwards Stadium and stunned the Cougars in overtime. It still remains one of the most impressive wins of the Whittingham era and the Utes last victory over BYU.
Georgia Tech, 38-10 win
Utah entered the Emerald Bowl looking to continue its impressive bowl winning streak, but it didn't appear to be easy, as the Utes faced a ranked Yellow Jackets team. Well, come to find out, it was rather easy and Utah handed Georgia Tech one of their worst bowl losses in school history. It proved to be a huge victory for Whittingham because it gave Utah another winning record and an impressive win against a solid ACC program, something they would try to build on the next season.
@ UCLA, 31-10 loss
Utah entered the 2006 season with high prospects and it all was supposed to begin in Pasadena. However, a drubbing at the hands of the Bruins left many doubts for the Utah program. It was, at the time, the most lopsided loss for Whittingham and definitely wasn't the way Utah wanted to start the season.
Boise State, 36-3 loss
The Utes rebounded after their loss to the Bruins to start the season and entered their game against a ranked Broncos team on a mini-roll. It was a huge contest and one Utah was favored in, however, the Utes were rolled in the most embarrassing home loss in quite awhile. In fact, the game is still the worst loss of the Whittingham era.
BYU, 33-31 loss
Utah wasn't favored and wasn't even expected to compete. The Cougars were the far better team, yet with only a few seconds left, the Utes held to a small lead. Then Beck found Harline and the rest is history. This is probably the lone loss on this list that hurts, but wasn't bad. The Utes played better and really deserved the win.
Tulsa, 25-13 win
The Fort Worth Bowl wasn't a great bowl game, Tulsa wasn't a great team, but it was a big moment for Whittingham. They were coming off a painfully crushing loss to BYU to end the season and needed this. They got it, finished the year with a somewhat respectable 8-5 record, even with their near-catastrophic start.
Oregon State, 24-7 loss
The 2007 season started out well...for the first quarter. Then injuries kicked in and Utah went down. This was a big game because it could have set in motion a great season. Knowing what we know now, a win here would have put the Utes in great position. Of course, it didn't happen and the season started very gloomy.
UCLA, 44-6 win
No one thought Utah would win and not only did they win, they destroyed the 11th ranked Bruins. It was a historic thumping and really set up for a good season last year, outside that pesky UNLV game. Since their victory over the Bruins, Utah is 13-2.
@ Louisville, 44-35 win
The Utes rebounded quickly from their tough loss to UNLV and entered the Louisville game at a crossroads. The Cardinals weren't anywhere near as good as many thought they would be, yet, it was still a road BCS game and the Utes managed to win.
@ BYU, 17-10 loss
Nearly identical to the game a year before, Utah managed to take the lead late and then blew it. This time, though, it was not a moral victory. It hurt because Utah did not play well. Had the Utes stopped Max Hall on 4th down, they'd be looking at the longest win streak in the country right now at 14. They would have also finished the 2007 season ranked and with ten wins.
Navy, 35-32 win
The bowl win streak continues, Utah finishes the season strong and sets the foundation for where we are now. It was a good victory over a good Navy team and though it wasn't the most important game of the 2007 season, it still proved to be a fairly big game.
@ Michigan, 25-23 win
Even though Michigan wasn't a great team, a victory in the Big House will always be remembered as something special. Not only did they get that, it provided them a chance to kick the season off on a high note. Utah is 5-0, fighting for a BCS berth and ranked in the top-15. None of that happens if they lose to Michigan to start the season.
To be continued...
So there you have it. Utah's biggest games under Whittingham according to me. By my account, Whittingham is 8-6, with most of those big losses coming in the 2006 season. Obviously there are games you can add to this list, but I believe these were the most important of the Whittingham era. Where Oregon State fits in probably won't be known until the season ends, but we can at least look at Thursday's game as a pretty big one -- the biggest of the season so far.
What do you think?