I don't know if the Utes saved their season Saturday night. But they did show fight and that's a huge improvement for a struggling team desperate for any type of traction.
You know, for the past week, I couldn't help but think of the last time Utah and Cal met as two downtrodden teams. No, not last season, but over a decade ago in 2000 when the Golden Bears were coached by Tom Holmoe and producing one of their worst stretches in program history. The Utes had entered the game coming off a lopsided loss to Arizona, who wasn't very good that year, and eventually lost 24-21 in the most McBride-y way possible ... a missed 55-yard field goal from Golden Whetman as time expired.
I remember watching this game with my grandma, of all people, and we both sat there in bewilderment of the poor play. We knew, going in, that Cal wasn't a good team, having been picked to finish second to last in the Pac-10 that year, and here Utah was, a season after their surprise 9-3 finish, on the verge of starting 0-2 against mediocre programs. As Whetman's kick missed, and I'm sure it wasn't even close, I was left shaking my head at just how awful the team looked.
It was shocking because, by most preseason publication, Utah had been predicted to win the Mountain West that year. But this team didn't look any bit the part of a conference winner ... even if they still had time to rebound once league play started. Cal was atrocious that year, only winning two more games, and, as we later found out that season, so was Utah. The Utes would finish 4-7, barely competitive it felt like, producing what really was the worst season of the McBride era and the first undeniable indication the program was stagnating.
The reason I bring this game up is because that season got off the rails fast and McBride was never able to get it back on track. They started that year 0-4 and if it wasn't for equally terrible Utah State and San Diego State, they probably could have rolled into the UNLV game on an eight-game losing streak. When looking back at that season, you can clearly see they lacked fight. Once the season went south, they rolled over and that was it. A similar thing happened two seasons later and it finally cost McBride his job.
So, all week, I kept going back to that game. I went back to it because I think that really was the moment things turned on McBride. Maybe you can make the case it happened prior to the Cal loss, and you'd probably be right, but 2000 was really the first season that things collapsed as fast as they did. Even in lean years during the 90s, seasons where Utah failed to make a bowl bid, they still were respectable. Not in 2000. It was an ugly, embarrassing and horrid mess of a season. It should have cost McBride his job and probably would have at a handful of other universities. But that's not the point. I don't want rehash old memories. My point is that everything became clearer in that Cal defeat. We saw the McBride era for what it was ... a team that sometimes lacked the necessary fight to live up to all our expectations.
This is what I feared most about the 2012 Utes. As things progressively worsened and the losses mounted, I feared they would wilt away and concede the season. Once you lose that fight, it becomes more difficult to find it again ... either at some point in a season or in the future. To be sure, McBride didn't lose his job when the Utes lost to an underwhelming Cal squad ... but the seeds of what led to his firing kind of felt like they were planted in Berkeley that day.
But because Utah showed fight and heart and came out playing like they knew what was at stake Saturday, this team has new life. Like I said, I don't know if it'll amount to a saved season, but it gives us another week and a bit more hope that maybe, just maybe, this team can get it together.
Even if they don't, even if they come up short, I hope they still play with as much ferocity as we saw Saturday. Because, you know, it's not necessarily about showing the fight against the better teams, I think that's inevitable due to the importance of the opponent, but rather the teams you maybe should beat ... and need to beat. Teams like Cal and Washington State and Colorado.
It's easy showing fight against an undefeated, top-ten team. It's a whole 'nother thing to do it against an equally weak team that's struggling just as much as you are. I know that sounds opposite of what it should, but I think these are the games where the fight is important more than ever because they are winnable games. There was no excuse for the '00 Utes to win only four games. They were a seven-plus win team that year, but because they lacked emotion and control, because they conceded long before the season ended, even winnable games became ugly losses.
That hasn't happened yet this season. To me, this is a huge positive and something I hope to see continue throughout the final weeks of 2012.
As long as Kyle Whittingham's team has fight, as long as they show up and don't back down, I will continue to believe in the future ... I will believe that more consistency and more wins will follow.
In 2000, the Cal game felt like the curtain was finally falling on the McBride era. Saturday could have offered up a very similar feeling for Whittingham had the Utes come out and played listless. But because they didn't, because they showed fight, who knows ... maybe this is the start of something good.
We certainly appear to have the pieces for it.