Saturday is pretty much the season, folks. I don't think anyone believes Utah can climb back from a 2-6 start. It would take threading the needle perfectly to claw their way back to .500 and the six wins needed to salvage this season. Lose Saturday and it's lights out. Win, and, even if only briefly, there is a glimmer of hope that maybe a bowl game is possible.
We haven't been in this stark, and dark, really, of a position in a decade. It's literally been ten years since the Utes were this close to a losing season this early in the season. Even in '05, when it came to one game against BYU, that game was still the eleventh of eleven. We're barely into the second half of the season and it's all or nothing Saturday. Win and you survive ... lose, and buh-bye.
So, with so much on the line, with their entire season riding on one game, can the Utes snap their longest losing streak since that 2002 season and build some confidence heading into the easiest stretch of the schedule? If they do, if they've got one last gasp of life in their lungs, they're going to have to do a near-180 from what we've seen the last two weeks.
Yes, Utah has been competitive. Yes, Utah could have won against UCLA and Oregon State. Yes, the talent appears to be good enough to at least find enough wins for a bowl berth. No, none of that matters if this team can't reverse some troubling trends that have set in over the course of the past seven games. I mentioned it yesterday and it's the reality of a saved season. This team can't afford fundamentally weak football and undisciplined action. If the season is to be saved, if the Utes are to make a run at a bowl game, it starts with correcting what has plagued this team for much of the season.
Cut down on penalties.
Cut down on turnovers.
Cut down on stupid plays.
Granted, turnovers hadn't been a massive issue until Saturday, but it was proven disastrous and the fact this team is completely failing at creating their own turnovers makes the issue even the more damaging. I don't know what the problem is there ... why they can't intercept passes and pounce on forced fumbles ... but it'd be nice if that changed Saturday.
For the Utes to win, they'll have to do everything they've done right on the offensive and defensive ends and then smooth out their weaknesses - experience, disciplinary issues and depth. If they do that, Saturday is winnable and the season kind of starts over again.
Fortunately, we've been here before. It was just last year, in fact, when Utah entered a home game 0-4 in Pac-12 play and on the verge of decimation. They were playing a struggling team from the Pac-12 North during the annual blackout. The Utes prevailed and the season was saved. Things looked up and Utah made a strong run at the Pac-12 South championship.
I don't expect that latter point to happen with a victory Saturday, but it would put them on the right path and I think, at the moment, this is what we're looking for the most. Utah needs to show some life. This is a team that can't afford, either for this season or in the future, to start 0-5 in conference play. Records like that are humiliating ... they're demoralizing ... they're reserved for the worst of the worst.
Utah isn't the worst of the worst. This team, believe it or not, is better than its 0-4 Pac-12 record. I believe this. I know many of you don't. But there is no reason the Utes shouldn't be 2-2 in conference play and 4-3 on the season.
But they aren't and it's clear this team is struggling. Travis Wilson is a freshman, starting in only his third game of his career, John White IV is nowhere near the level he was last year and the offensive line continues to be a problem. There are also issues with the Utes' receivers, namely the supposed senior leader DeVonte Christopher and continued concern on the defensive end. All this adds up to a pretty negative outlook. Yet, believe it or not, I've found that it's remarkable how one game can change a season. Win Saturday and the outlook brightens, even if just barely. I think that's what we're looking for from this team ... some light at the end of the tunnel. We just want traction. We want hope.
Cal, though, is a tough opponent. They dominated Utah last year and have proven good, though inconsistent, this season. They beat UCLA soundly and nearly knocked off Urban Meyer and Ohio State on the road. They also lost to Nevada and got pounded by Stanford. Unlike Utah, their highs have been actual highs ... whereas our highs are almost entirely tied to individual moments in losses.
The Golden Bears are very capable of coming into Salt Lake and pounding the Utes. Likewise, though, they're very capable of laying over and finding themselves on the receiving end of that pounding. With Jeff Tedford's job on the line, I've got to think this team will come in fired up in honor of their coach. They're playing for his job and sometimes that's a scary proposition for an opposing team.
I want a win Saturday. I want this team to show fight. I want this team to play Utah football and do everything in its power to salvage this season. Lay it all out there like this is the last game of the season because, in many ways, it kind of feels like it is.
So, all I can say is ... just win. It's that simple.