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The ghosts of season openers past: Oregon, 1995

By the looks of a recent poll, we're feeling pretty confident about a win next Thursday. 75% of you think Utah will beat Pitt and why not? The Utes are a legitimate top-25 team and the game is being played in Salt Lake City. We're coming off a fairly successful season and expectations for this year are pretty high. They're even the Vegas favorite to win, though barely. 

But there are reasons to be concerned. This team has to rebuild on the defensive end and Jordan Wynn, though putting up a fine performance in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, still has only officially started five games. We're putting the potentially powerful offense in the hands of a kid who, last year, was a true freshman. There are risks with that. 

Of course, they're also facing a capable opponent many believe could win their conference. The Pittsburgh Panthers, like the Utes, do have questions of their own. However, the talent level Dave Wannstedt has stockpiled in Pittsburgh is better than at any point in recent history. Besting even, on paper, the program Utah decisively beat in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. 

So the Utes should be cautious entering this game. It's not a given. It never is when you're facing the fifteenth ranked team in the nation. In fact, this opener is very similar to their opener against the Oregon Ducks in 1995 - though maybe less expected on Utah's side due to their losses that year.

Of course, those Ducks were not the 2010 Panthers. They were picked to finish third in the Pac-10 that year. Then again, Utah was picked to finish fifth in the WAC (they eventually won it - or at least tied for a championship). But those differences act as an equalizer.

The game, though, was big. It was big because the Utes were coming off their memorable 10-2 campaign (where they had upset the Ducks in Eugene) and it marked a point where they could establish themselves as a true power in the west. They were facing a good Oregon team that had made the Rose Bowl a season prior and though the Ducks weren't ranked like Pitt (they would enter the top-25 in week two), a win would've certainly suggested the program could keep it rolling - which, if you'll remember, was the ad campaign for the 2005 team, that, after a 12-0 season, failed to do just that.

Back then, though, no one knew what to expect from Utah's football program. We had hoped 1994 meant very good things in the future and a win over the Ducks would prove that. 

The game started well enough for Utah, as the Utes faked a punt and scored on a 71-yard touchdown. Then they managed another score on a 97-yard interception. However, they couldn't hold the lead and Oregon came roaring back, eventually taking the lead when Duck running back Ricky Whittle scored with around ten minutes left in the game. 

Utah couldn't score again and eventually lost the game 27-20.

It was a demoralizing loss because it proved the program was not primed for consistency. It also predicted the eventual struggles of Ron McBride trying to take the program to the next level. That next level never came and though Utah won a share of the WAC title (their lone WAC championship under McBride), they finished a mediocre 7-5 and missed a bowl game for the first time in four years. 

Oregon, of course, went on to become one of the most consistently successful programs in the Pac-10. Mike Bellotti, whose first game was against the Utes that season, finished his career in Eugene winning ten or more games four times.

Utah, though, could never recapture the greatness of 1994 under McBride. Outside of a 7-1 start a year later, they never sniffed the top-25 again until Urban Meyer took over in 2003. 

I don't ever expect a similar overall outcome if Utah were to lose to Pitt on the second. However, a loss is possible and as Oregon showed the Utes in 1995, they're not unstoppable in Salt Lake City. 

So use this as a cautionary tale about what could go wrong. Especially against a good opponent.

The following is a highlight film for the game (as well as the Stanford game, another Utah loss at home, from week two):

Utah vs Oregon & Stanford 95.flv (via eekyv)