Utes in dire need of victory as bowl chances dwindle

Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

A victory Saturday won't lock up another bowl berth for Utah, but it'll certainly get 'em close. A loss, though, guarantees the program their first losing season in ten years.

2002.

Think where you were in 2002. I was still going through my secondary education, George W. Bush was still president - we were only a year removed from the attacks on 9/11. Salt Lake, earlier in the year, had hosted the Winter Olympics and Utah football had just locked up its second losing season in three, all but sealing Ron McBride's fate as Utah's head coach.

A lot can happen in ten years. In 2002, Nickelback had the number one song, Star Wars was still muddling through its prequels and the NBA aired its last game on NBC.

For Utah football, the past decade has been an monumental success. If, ten years ago, I had told you that the Utes would have two undefeated seasons under their belt, two BCS bowl wins, and now were a member of the Pac-12 ... you'd probably think I just dropped some ecstasy (another big drug from that era). No way could any of that happen.

It goes to show how quickly a program like Utah can grow. It went from somewhat good most years to down right awesome under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham. This is, without question, the best stretch in Utah football history.

Sadly, it kind of feels like there was a ten-year self life on this whole experience because, right on cue, Utah is on the verge of a losing season ten years after their last. It's a disappointing situation to be in for a program that we all felt had moved beyond that possibility. We haven't. The jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 was much more difficult than we anticipated and the talent gap larger than any of us could have ever imagined. Because of this, because Utah is now trying to catch up to a conference that is not content on remaining stagnant, we're slipping a bit and it's shown in the last two years. The Utes' Pac-12 record is only 6-10.

This season, though, it's really hit us because at least last year things turned around quickly enough that the prospects of not making a bowl game were only temporary. Now, for the first time since since Whittingham's first season, a chance at a bowl game essentially comes down to one game. If the Utes win Saturday, they should nudge their way into the picture. If they don't ... if they lose, it's over. The season will have ended and, for the first time since the beginning of this century (that sounds way more impressive & dramatic than just saying 10 years), Utah will be spending the holidays home.

Now I say should because we all understand that a win this weekend doesn't lock up anything, right? After last season's demoralizing loss to the Colorado Buffaloes ended the Utes' chance at winning the Pac-12 South, no one dare look at that game as a lock. But a victory over the Wildcats at least puts Utah in the position to play their way into a bowl game. A loss doesn't.

That's what is on the line Saturday. It's a big game. Probably the biggest of the season now because it really is do or die.

The problem here is that Arizona is no slouch. They are a good team and very capable of rolling into Salt Lake City and kicking the Utes' butt. We didn't see it last year, but under the guidance of Rich Rodriguez, the program really has turned it around and done so pretty fast. This is a team, after all, that upset USC, and though they've been on the bad end of some lopsided results (66-10 to UCLA? and being shut out by Oregon), Utah is in no position to get overconfident.

Arizona can score ... and score a lot. Utah's defense has to play better than they did against Washington or this is going to be no contest. Equally, the offense is going to have to play better than it did against Washington or, regardless of what the defense does, this game is going to be no contest. You hear the term playing well on both sides of the ball a lot and it's no more apt than this weekend. Both sides have to play their best game ... the offense has to sustain drives and the defense has to, you know, defend ... especially through the air, where Arizona ranks 14th nationally.

The good news is that the Wildcats have struggled on the defensive end this season. In fact, they give up an average of 34.60 points per game - which ranks 103rd in the nation. That tells you everything you need to know about this game ... it very well could turn into a shootout.

Does Utah have the offensive firepower to survive that type of game? Even in their victories over Cal & Wazzu, the offense, while good, wasn't exactly explosive. For that to happen, Travis Wilson has to shake off his performance against the Huskies and Brian Johnson has to open the playbook. No more conservative play calling because, the bottom line is that this is the season.

That's both exciting and scary at the same time because I think Saturday is going to tell us a lot about this team. Are they going to lay it all out there, do everything in their power to win ... or are we going to see another Washington-type game develop? If it's the latter, then this offseason should be spent doing a lot of soul searching. If it's the former, if Utah wins, or even if they go out with guns a blazing, we can take solace in that.

But anything less would be a huge disappointment and pretty much sum up this season.

Look, I'm not ready for this season to end. I want a bowl game. I don't care if it's played on the ice banks of Anchorage ... I want another bowl game. This season has had very few highlights ... please don't let it end like this, Utah. Please.

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