Ute95's post got me thinking about the importance of big plays in big games. They often define the tempo of a contest and could have an impact that goes well beyond the four quarters of play.
I can't help but think back to the start of the 2004 season and Steve Savoy's huge touchdown on the Utes' first drive against the Texas A&M Aggies. It really marked the game and the season for Utah. When that happened, I think everyone was caught off guard because while there was hype about the offense, we were coming off a season where the offense had hardly produced eye-popping numbers. Remember, in the final game of that 2003 season, the Utes only managed seventeen points.
But when Savoy took Alex Smith's pass 78-yards for the score, it became clear this was not going to be the grind-it-out Utah team we were used to seeing under Ron McBride and through parts of Urban Meyer's first season. That pass established the Utes' largest threat and helped propel them to a blowout victory against an Aggie team that was only a few years removed from winning the Big 12 championship.
Thursday, a big play in the first quarter (not necessarily on the first drive) could go along way toward proving whether or not this Utah team has the goods. I'm not expecting an 80-yard bomb on the first play of the game - but maybe something like a huge sack or interception when Pitt has the ball early.
Think back to the Sugar Bowl and what the Utes did on offense during their first series. It wasn't something we were used to because Utah wasn't a very up-tempo team that liked to run the no-huddle offense. Outside of the final minutes against the Oregon St. Beavers and the TCU Horned Frogs games, it was something they rarely did.
Yet against the Alabama Crimson Tide, they ran it perfectly. Brian Johnson went almost the entire drive before facing his first second down. After only minutes, it was 7-0 Utah. The tempo was set early and the game played out in a way where Utah managed the flow in their favor.
That's not to say you need explosive, big-time plays to win. The Utes started about as badly as one team could start against TCU in 2008 and still managed to calm themselves down to the point where they eventually won. But it helps. It helps especially at home because it gets the crowd into it and sets the opposing team back on their heels a bit.
It's also important to note that the play doesn't have to come within the first few moments of a game. Look at the Poinsettia Bowl to find a huge play that altered the game. After finding themselves in an early 14-0 hole, Shaky Smithson had a huge 61-yard return. It set up a Utah score and just like that, they were back in the game.
Of course, Cal had a few big plays of their own early in that game that put them up two scores, so getting a big play early doesn't always result in a victory. But at home, in the first game of the season against a team that is still trying to find its identity - well that could be the difference.
It doesn't have to happen. It'd just be nice if it did.