As we count down the days until the start of the 2012 season, I thought I'd also look back at some of the bigger games of the 2011 season. This really isn't about ranking each game, rather just picking the one I want to talk about on any given day. Hopefully this will spark some discussion as we try our hardest to get through the upcoming summer.
I want to start by looking at the Pitt game. In my view, it very well might be the most important game of the '11 season and certainly one of the bigger wins Utah saw last year. I know it's easy to oversell these things, but it's hard to ignore just how big of a positive impact this had on the team and, subsequently, the season.
In fact, prior to the game, I talked about the potential importance of a victory. It turns out, it was a huge step in salvaging the season and put the Utes on course for a bowl berth and winning record.
Sure, they did lose a week later at Cal, but, until the Colorado debacle, the loss to the Golden Bears was the only blemish after that big win and don't downplay it, it was a big win.
The Utes entered the game losers of two straight and held a very un-Utah like 2-3 record - including embarrassing home losses to Washington & Arizona. Jon Hays had yet to prove he was capable of leading the team to anything and now we were looking at salvaging the season an entire country away in an area Utah rarely travels. To add to the complications, kickoff was set for an early morning start Salt Lake time and generally, that favors the team that doesn't have to travel.
Back in 2005, Utah traveled to the east coast for another game against a mediocre BCS team they were probably better than and it didn't turn out nearly as well. Those Utes lost to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, even though they held a lead in the second half and looked poised for the victory. But a few boneheaded plays, a late hit on what would have been an interception-turned-touchdown, dramatically shifted moment in favor of the Heels and Utah returned back to Salt Lake City a broken 3-2 team. They would go on to lose two more in a row before eventually rebounding late in the season.
My biggest concern with this game was that early start and the possibility of Utah not showing up until the third quarter and eventually losing. Had they lost and I think the '11 season is pretty much over, especially if they followed it up with another defeat a week later. I just don't know how this program comes back from a 2-5 start.
Fortunately, even though they did fall behind 14-3, the Utes came back, seized control of the game after the first quarter and eventually put away the Panthers on a massive and clutch interception by Derrick Shelby.
Dare I say that was the biggest play of the season outside, maybe, John White IV's touchdown in the Sun Bowl?
Was the Pitt win the biggest of the season? Maybe not in terms of flash or style, but it was certainly the most important. Without it, I really have a hard time believing Utah eventually ends up in the position they were at the end of the season - you know, a game away from playing for the Pac-12 championship.
Maybe they do rebound. Maybe if they lost to Pitt, they would have defeated Cal. But I just don't see it. 2-4 and a tough loss on the road would be very difficult to overcome in the end. Fortunately, we didn't have to find out. The Utes beat the Panthers, ran their record to 8-0 against Big East teams and found a spark that carried them well into November.