A week into the 2013 season and I already feel better about the Utes than at any point last season. I'm not sure if that's more praise of this year's team or just how thoroughly disappointing they looked last year. Whatever the reason for my renewed optimism, the fact I actually feel positive about this year's team is encouraging. Still, I also realize how close Utah was to opening this season to depressing results. While the Utes showed some heavy grit, they were also a few plays away from feeling the exact crushing pain our rivals to the south went through Saturday against Virginia. Walking that tightrope, which Utah failed to do successfully last year (losing close games to USU, USC, UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona), is really what will define this year's team and whether they can get back to bowl contention.
So far, so good.
To be sure, Thursday's win over Utah State was not particularly pretty. The defense struggled, and, for periods of the game, so did the offense. There was a period there, early in the third quarter, where it looked like Utah would be run out of their own stadium by the Aggies - a thought that not only indicated things were bad, but potentially worse than last year.
Then they did something last year's team couldn't, they pulled back from the brink and won. In fact, I would wager Utah controlled much of the second half and even though the final score indicated a close game, it was only close because, in the third, the Utes were working out of a nine-point hole. Much of that damage from Utah State came in the second quarter, after Utah built a 14-3 lead and seemingly looked in control of the entire game. They weren't and suddenly, everything started to fall apart - the defense couldn't contain Chuckie Keeton and the offense, which looked surprisingly crisp early, stalled on pretty much every third down.
That set up for that early third quarter point where everything looked disastrous.
But then Utah was able to really change the dynamics, specifically on defense, and slowly worked their way back into the game.
After the game, Kyle Whittingham admitted that he and Kalani Sitake basically threw out their defensive game plan at the half and started over. It was a smart move, since Keeton was free to do whatever he wanted and he successfully did it. Give that quarterback credit, he played one helluva game and I think proved, even in defeat, that he's the best player in the state of Utah.
Even so, the way the Utes game-planned against him in the second half worked. While Keeton still was able to get free a lot of the time, and he certainly made things interesting, the box score don't lie - USU scored 17 first half points and only managed nine in the second. Six of those came at the very beginning of the third quarter. Beyond that 15 yard touchdown pass, Utah State wouldn't sniff the end zone again the remainder of the game.
As down as I was on the defense throughout parts of the contest, I think their ability to even marginally shut down a potent Aggies offense was pretty remarkable. In fact, there was a period in this game where the Utes defense actually outplayed the offense - creating a turnover and holding on some huge third downs ... only to have the offense fail to do anything with the momentum.
That doesn't mean there aren't concerns, and certainly Utah's secondary is questionable at best, but the Utes held the Aggies nearly ten-points below their season average from last year. If anything, at least there's that, and, once adjustments were made, it became increasingly more difficult for USU to do anything - even with how good Keeton looked.
On the flip side, I was impressed with Utah's offense. There were times where they looked similar to last year's incarnation, but on the whole, especially Travis Wilson and the offensive line, everything looked improved. I remember last year up in Logan just how badly the Aggies manhandled the Utes offensive line. It was painful to watch and a big reason Jordan Wynn couldn't even get through the first half of that game without being leveled with a career-ending injury. Go back and rewatch that performance and compare it to this year's - it's night and day. Yes, Kelvin York struggled, and the running game didn't dominate like maybe it has in past seasons, but Karl Williams did some very nice things and you could make the claim that, beyond Wilson and Phillips, he was the most important factor in Utah's win ... even though he nearly killed 'em with a fumble.
That doesn't happen if last year's offensive line plays this game.
On that alone, I'm optimistic because I felt absolutely deflated coming out of Logan and it wasn't just because they lost - it was how they lost. Thursday, much of what went wrong in their game against the Aggies last year actually went right in this one. Our quarterback played well, maybe even having his best game as a Ute, the line did its job, the receivers stepped up in the absence of Kenneth Scott (and will have to again in every game this season), the tempo increased, penalties decreased and most importantly - Utah managed points.
Oh, and they found themselves a kicker.
For so much uncertainty, and let's not get ahead of ourselves here, some still exists, I think some great progress was made this week. Utah actually looks like a winning team.
I don't know if I could have said that at any point last season ... even after their ho-hum win over Northern Colorado.
Maybe I'm foolishly buying the hype, and ignoring the fact things could have gone woefully wrong for the Utes if this or that happened Thursday night. But even though I would have felt more comfortable with a blowout win, I can't help but think some glaring questions were successfully answered. Even more so after watching good teams struggle with inferior foes. Oregon State lost, at home, to Eastern Washington. Nebraska, a ranked team, had to hold off a monster rally from Wyoming. Boise State, the darlings of the non-BCS, walked into the Huskies buzzsaw and left with their worst loss of the Chris Petersen era. BYU, who many in the state pegged as potentially the best Utah team, failed badly on the road against a ACC team that managed all of four wins last year. Teams that were expected to be better than Utah, including the Aggies, either lost or struggled against supposedly inferior programs.
Does that mean we're great again? No. But it does mean they potentially took some key steps and that's what I think we all wanted the most out of this game (beyond, you know, victory).
Utah is 1-0, and that alone is cause for celebration. This isn't Northern Colorado or Montana State - and to be honest, the Utes looked better in this opener than their last two against FCS teams. For that, I am optimistic, and excited, to see where this is going.
Hopefully it's the beginning of something good.