It never hurts going into a game with a chip on your shoulder and that's exactly what the Utes will be doing this Saturday night when they take on San Diego State to open conference play. Last season the Aztecs rolled into Rice-Eccles Stadium and defeated a demoralized Utah team fresh off a 2-game road trip that produced no wins.
The Utes were in the midst of a 3-game losing streak and had lost 4 of 5. With their confidence shot and a losing season nearly developing right in front of them, the Utes managed to rebound and finished with a 7-5 record. Yet that San Diego State game was a microcosm of the entire season as sluggish play, lack of confidence and ultimately a disappointing finish defined Utah in both that game and their season. Now, the Utes will be looking for a bit of revenge this time around.
My biggest complaint about last year's Utah team was that they failed to bounce back after their loss to TCU. It was the first time in nearly two seasons that Utah had lost a game and I'm sure the feeling was foreign to every player and coach on the sidelines. To a young team it forced them into questioning their ability and whether they had the tools to put forth a successful season. A close win at home against Air Force the next week was not enough to rebuild the confidence lost against TCU. Things went from bad to worse for the Utes when a week after they lost to North Carolina on the road they were denied, at the goal line, a game-winning touchdown by a stingy Colorado State defense. After walking away with 4-failed attempts to punch it in, Utah looked downtrodden and lost.
The lack of confidence hurt Utah and it showed on the field. They were very tentative when it came to their play and when San Diego State went up 14-0 early, it was clear the Utes were uneasy about the flow of the game. After losing the game Utah finished the season strong, winning 4 of their last 5 games. Yet the San Diego State game still was the worst loss of the season for the Utes, because the Aztecs would go on to finish with only 5-wins and it nearly cost Utah a chance at their third straight winning season.
This season the roles very well could be reversed. Utah is not lacking any confidence after two dominate wins against lesser opponents and it's the hope of the coaches that this confidence spills over into Saturday's game. For the Aztecs however they are 0-2 on the season and have had two close games. In week one they nearly came back against a strong UTEP game and then last week held Wisconsin to only 14-points at Wisconsin. The close losses signal that maybe the Aztecs are ready to take it to the next level, but that the talent is so conditioned on losing that it might not happen just yet. If this is the case, confidence may be a big issue facing the Aztecs much like it was for the Utes last season. If Utah comes out strong, taking an early lead, it could defer any hope that San Diego State may get a victory to start the conference season.
Utah will not overlook San Diego State and they know how tough this game will be. However I believe the Utes feel better about themselves today heading into this game than they did heading into last year's game. That confidence could propel the Utes to victory and start another strong conference season. Whittingham will play the revenge card and he should because nothing gets players up more for a game than wanting to enact a bit of revenge on a conference foe. Now they just need to follow through.