ESPN Classic is running classic college football games each night leading up to the start of the 2009 season. Last night, it was the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl between Utah & Fresno State.
It's only been a decade since that game was played, but so much has changed for Utah. They are a completely different program today than they were then and I'm not just talking in terms of wins and losses, but something deeper - a core difference that manifested itself out of the Urban Meyer era.
Don't get me wrong, I'll always be grateful for what Ron McBride did at Utah, but this game pretty much summed up his tenure here. It was decent enough, but under its surface, not nearly as impressive as it should have been. The Utes dominated the Bulldogs on the offensive side of the ball, out-gaining them 548 to 279 - with 334 of those yards coming on the ground.
Yet the game wasn't decided until the final minutes and Utah only won after making a field goal late in the fourth quarter. Hard to imagine any team gaining 548-yards of total offense and only putting up 17 points, but that's what happened to the Utes. Not exactly the greatest bowl performance in school history. But wasn't that how it always was under McBride? The Utes often won ugly and painfully ambled through seasons. Which is something I still can't understand because I think those late-90s teams were extremely talented.
But that's why McBride ultimately received his pink slip, because even though he elevated Utah to a solid level, they consistently underperformed and often won in the worst way possible. That was the case in the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl. There was no reason for that game to be as close as it was, yet the Utes trailed late and very well could have been looking at one of the most perplexing losses in school history.
Of course, that didn't happen, but it proves just how much the program has changed and grown over the course of the last ten years.
In reality, there hasn't been a poor bowl performance yet under Kyle Whittingham. McBride might have been able to beat USC and Fresno State - both part of Utah's current 8-game bowl winning streak - but neither game was entirely impressive and though victories, they didn't really leave you feeling totally fulfilled. Well maybe that's a bit of a stretch, since that USC win 2001 was impressive when you consider what the Trojans have done since. But at the time, it was the most dominating 10-6 drubbing in college football history.
Since Whittingham took over the Utah program, there aren't many wins that rival the lackluster victory against Fresno in the Vegas Bowl. Certainly you can't find any bowl games that were as bad and painfully boring, though the victory over Tulsa in 2006 might be considered (even that, however, was a decisive victory).
In fact, in Whittingham's four bowl wins at Utah, only the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl was close and that was the good kind of close (if there is ever a thing). The other three were blowouts and Utah scored 25-points or more in each win. Under McBride, the most they ever scored in a win was that 17 in the '99 Vegas Bowl.
Not that I'm griping about winning, but it's like Utah of 1999 and Utah of 2009 are in two completely different universes. It's hard to believe we're only a decade removed from the slow, methodical and often lackluster performances of the McBride era.
Yet here we are.
What does this mean about Utah football today? Well nothing, really. But while there were good memories throughout the 90s, there were also continuous flaws that ultimately culminated in the embarrassing 2000 and 2002 seasons. It was a builup to that moment and while I think none of us expected the bottom to fall out like that at the end of the '99 Las Vegas Bowl - in hindsight, it should have been expected.
Today, I don't see any deep-seated issues that could realistically force the bottom out from underneath the program. That's a comforting feeling, because I think we all spent the 90s enjoying the victories, but always hoping McBride could take the program to the next level.
He never could and the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl showed us why.