The celebration in the locker room was a little more jubilant than usual after the Utes defeated the USC Trojans. There seemed to be a sense of relief that had not been felt in the Utah program in a couple years. Even Coach Kyle Whittingham got into the post game celebration; caught up with the excitement, he began to dance in front of the team, which was recorded on one of the team member's cell phones. Why the excitement? It was the first conference victory over USC, but more importantly, the goal of bowl eligibility had been accomplished.
When Kaelin Clay cradled the pass from Travis Wilson with eight seconds left on the clock, the Utah players knew they were only moments away from their sixth win. That sixth victory had eluded the Utes the past couple seasons. That sixth win meant that they would most likely be playing a bowl game. The fans love the event, the players love the "schwag", and the coaches love the extra practices for the younger players.
Some publications had Utah with the most difficult schedule in the country to start the 2014 season. If Utah was to return to a bowl game, they would most certainly have to win the majority of their home games. Which were against the likes of Idaho State, Fresno St., Washington St., USC, Oregon, and Arizona. The road games included Michigan, UCLA, Arizona St., Oregon St., Stanford, and Colorado. A loss to any of the supposed weaker competition might put a bowl game in jeopardy, and maybe even spell the end of Whittingham's tenure at Utah.
The first two games went as planned, and the Utes soundly defeated Idaho St. and Fresno St. at home. Travis Wilson looked like he might have finally turned the corner and solidified himself as the unquestionable starter. A road victory at the Big House over the Michigan Wolverines, and the Utes were halfway to a bowl game. Then exactly what must not happen, did happen.
Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead over Washington St., and the Utes looked well on their way to avenging the previous season's loss in Pullman and securing their fourth victory of the year. However, the story did not play out this way. Behind the arm of the Wazzu gunslinger Connor Halliday and two fourth down conversions for touchdowns, the Utes found themselves on the wrong end of a 28-27 loss. This was a game that many had penciled in as a "W".
The next week at UCLA, Utah's defense sacked Heisman hopeful Brett Hundley 10 times. Travis Wilson was benched in favor of Kendal Thompson. Thompson, running back Devontae Booker, and kicker Andy Phillips were enough to pull off the 30-28 upset in the Rose Bowl, and sent the Bruins hopes of a playoff birth down the drain.
The 4-1 Utes headed to Reser Stadium. Booker ran over 200 yards and carried the Utes to an overtime victory over the Oregon St. Beavers. The Utes brought that momentum back to Salt Lake City and were able to narrowly defeat USC in one of the most thrilling games in front of the largest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium history. Earning that all important sixth victory.
The sense of relief then turned to thoughts of not only a bowl game, but a Pac-12 South Championship. Utah already had taken down the LA schools, Utah only had the Arizona schools, and Colorado in the South standing in their way. The following week in Tempe, Utah's defense was stout against the high powered attack that had decimated the Utes every other time they faced the Sun Devils. This time they only gave up 19 points to ASU, but the Utah offense failed to produce and could only muster 16 points of their own. The Utes were determined to not let this disappointing loss derail what they could accomplish.
They came home and faced one of the top teams in the country in Oregon, who had proved they were human, as they faltered earlier in the season at home versus Arizona. The Utes traded blows with the Ducks, but the infamous mistake by Kaelin Clay and too much Heisman Trophy winning Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota wore down the Utes, and they were handed their second loss at home.
The Utes were able to pick up a double overtime win at Stanford, and with games versus Arizona and Colorado left on the schedule, the Pac-12 South, and a ticket to the Pac-12 Championship game were still in reach if a few other games fell in their favor. Those other games fell in their favor, but a blowout loss at home versus the Wildcats killed all those hope. The offense was colder than the fans in the stands, who sat through freezing wind and rain.
The Utes were able to pull out a squeaker on the road in Boulder versus Colorado and finished the season with eight victories and would await an invite to a bowl game. A few days later as the bowl selections were made, and when two Las Vegas showgirls, and a representative from the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl showed up in the meeting room, the Utes knew they were on their way to take on former Mountain West foe Colorado St.
ESPN announcer Brent Musburger announced that the Utes were, "Lethal when it comes to Bowl games," and color commentator Jesse Palmer questioned if there was a better coach to get teams prepared for bowl games than Kyle Whittingham.
The Utes were lethal. The Utes came prepared. The University of Utah showed that they were no longer a MWC team. They soundly defeated the CSU Rams 45-10. The Bowl MVP Travis Wilson ran for three touchdowns and threw for another. Devontae Booker had a stellar game and rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown. Troy McCormick had a breakout game, and Ute fans had a sampling of the athleticism of Wyoming transfer Jason Thompson, who became eligible at the end of the regular season, and saw time at quarterback and special teams.
The Utes returning to a bowl game is exactly what this program needed. An injection of positive vibes into a program that had narrowly missed out on being eligible in the past two seasons. The Las Vegas Bowl victory should provide a nice springboard for the much anticipated 2015 season.