Saturday night's game in Arizona could have been a turning point for the program. Instead, it appears Utah is still on the same path that dogged 'em much of the last two seasons. In spite of beating Stanford in Salt Lake City a week ago, the Utes proved this weekend that there is much work to be done - and it ain't going to be easy.
Sure, we don't want to overreact to this defeat. Arizona, while flawed, is still probably going to bank enough wins to make the postseason. That alone makes them a formidable foe, especially when you are on the road. Even so, even with Travis Wilson dogged by injury and Utah's offensive line looking totally outmatched, this loss is painful and damaging because it still could have been a win.
For much of the game, the Wildcats outplayed the Utes, and yet, at the end of the game, with only minutes left, Utah had a chance to win. They had a chance to steal victory on the road and ride back to Salt Lake City a potential top-25 team and one victory from bowl eligibility.
And then Kyle Whittingham opted to kick a field goal down four.
Of course it would miss. It was just that kind of night for the Utes. Not like it would have mattered anyway.
That play, though, summed up the entire frustrating performance. Close ... but not close enough. Why Whittingham, with a quarterback lacking any type of confidence, a shaky offense, and a field goal kicker who already had missed anyway earlier in the game, decided to kick it there, knowing full well it would take a magnitude of steps to even get another shot at winning, is beyond me.
In two weeks, Whittingham coached one of his best games at Utah and one of his worst. Baffling.
It felt gutless. The entire drive felt gutless. It was like the Utes knew they were going to lose and decided they would rather lose by 1 than 4. I know that isn't what really happened, and in some warped way, you can rationalize Whittingham's logic ... even if barely.
But when you've got the chance to win the game, especially on the road, you take that chance because it's probably not going to come around again.
And it didn't.
That play defined the game and, sadly, has defined much of Utah's time in the Pac-12.
When you've got a team on the ropes, like the Utes did Saturday after that crucial turnover, you knock 'em out. Even with Adam Schulz as your quarterback. You take your shots and hope to land the KO. But you can't duck and bob until the bell rings if you aren't ahead. Sadly, that's exactly what they did. Then, somehow, Whittingham expected the offense to miraculously find themselves and march down field for the game-winning field goal?
In fact, much of the play calling Saturday was questionable - especially the absence of Lucky Radley in the second half. Unless he was injured, he deserved a few shots because he was tearing the Wildcats up before he inexplicably left the game.
Beyond the loss, though, the most disheartening news was the injury to Travis Wilson. No one knows the severity of it right now, but it's clear he was not right at any point Saturday night. His passes were hardly ever on target, and he threw two abysmal picks, with one that was returned for a touchdown. Though he left the game in the second quarter, and thus did not have an opportunity to redeem himself, Wilson's performance this weekend was certainly his worst as a Ute.
Credit, though, Utah's resolve. That game could have gotten ugly fast and the Utes somehow powered back and, behind an improved defense (that once again folded fast on the first drive), made it a game - a game they could have won. In fact, at one point in the third quarter, Utah led Arizona. At that point, everything was going their way - including a beautiful flea-flicker and then a 4th down stand - but the offense, which had improved so much this season, seemed to be possessed by last year's putrid unit.
Quick, someone call an exorcist.
Or at least that midget lady from Poltergeist.
It wasn't enough, though. Even with a couple turnovers, some solid 4th down stops, and a defense that did a lot of bending, but not much breaking for huge stretches of the second half, Utah couldn't get it done.
Now they travel to USC to take on a team that looks just as questionable as the Utes right now. Will Utah bounce back or are we about to witness another mid-season slump that casts away any hope of a bowl game?