Bleeding Red: Win over Colorado was clutch for football program

Utah caught Colorado in the buff
It was clear early this would be no loss
The running game would prove to be enough
Even a rolling stone couldn’t tackle Moss

COMMENTARY – With three to play, the Utes needed one more win to become bowl eligible. After heartbreaking losses to Washington State and Washington, the count was 0-2 with only Colorado remaining. Would Utah fans commiserate with Mudville after Casey was at the bat? Not this time. With their backs against the wall, the Utes dug deep into the batter’s box and put one over the centerfield fence.

utesSomewhat reminiscent of the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl against BYU, Utah landed the knockout punch in the first half. By intermission, the Utes had a commanding 28-0 lead. Utah already had 340 yards of total offense by halftime, which topped the full game numbers against Arizona State by 75 yards, was 1-yard shy of the total against Arizona (a win), and only 27 yards short of the final numbers against Washington State.

After struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone all season long, the red running machine was 4 for 4 in the first half, with Zach Moss and Troy Williams each running for two touchdowns apiece. If only that could have been the case all season (or at least by mid-season).

The rushing attack was the real difference-maker in the game. Kyle Whittingham has persistently preached that he wants his running backs to run with violence. Whittingham got an early Christmas present as that is precisely what happened on Saturday night. Ute runners consistently bounced off would-be tacklers, and oftentimes turned the tables and laid a punishing blow on the defender.

Utah running back Zack Moss (2) drags Colorado linebacker Drew Lewis (20) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Moss amassed a career-high 196 yards in the game (with 138 of those yards coming in the first half), to put him at 1,023 yards for the season. That makes him the 14th player in Utah history to summit the 1,000-yard peak in a single season. Moss is only a sophomore, and still has two full seasons to shine as a Ute. I’m betting the best is yet to come.

Similar to the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, Utah simmered down in the second half, yet the outcome was never seriously in question. The Utes truly took their foot off the pedal in the final minute of the game with first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, as they elected to just take a knee instead of punching it in for one more score.

Going into the game, Utah and Colorado had identical 2-6 conference records and 5-6 overall records, with each team desperately needing a win to become bowl eligible. But that is where the similarities end. Most notable was the stark contrast in energy and emotion. From start to finish, the Utes displayed a lot of energy and emotion both on the field and on the sideline. The Buffaloes didn’t. Especially in the first half, Colorado’s body language was that of a team resigned to losing. Even in the second half, when the initial call was a fumble recovery by the Buffaloes (which was ultimately reversed by the replay official), while a few defensive players whooped it up coming off the field, there were precious few high fives and next to no excitement on the sideline.

Even Whittingham found some satisfaction in the win. “It takes some of the sting out of a frustrating season,” he explained after the game. “We lost to the top three teams in the league, two on the road, by one, three and three points. This team was close. We have a bunch of fighters and as frustrating as those losses were, to be able to pull together the way they did tonight, is a credit to our seniors.”

So, when all is said and done, Utah is even-Steven with six wins and six losses. That makes the Utes bowl eligible, which only raises more questions than answers.

Nine of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 are bowl eligible. The problem is that the Pac-12 only has tie-ins with seven bowl games — the Rose Bowl, Valero Alamo Bowl, San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, Foster Farms Bowl, Hyundai Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, and the Cactus Bowl. At 6-6, both Utah and UCLA will hope to fill a vacancy in some other bowl game.

There are a number of possible destinations, with the most likely three appearing to be the Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27, Walk-On’s Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 27, and the Birmingham Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 23.

“I think we are a pretty good 6-6 team,” Kyle Whittingham commented after the game on Saturday night. Agreed. With dominating performances against UCLA and Colorado, and four near-misses against four ranked teams, a strong argument can be made that the Utes underperformed this year in terms of their final record. Which makes for an interesting dynamic going into the bowl game.

Whittingham is 10-1 in bowl games, giving him the best bowl win percentage in NCAA history at 91% (with the only loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl). A 6-6 record is not going to qualify Utah for a very prestigious bowl game, and instead the Utes will be relegated to a minor bowl against a team with a similarly unimpressive record. For example, many projections have Utah playing 6-6 Texas in the Texas Bowl. That could be a very winnable game for the Utes, pushing Whittingham’s bowl record to 11-1.

So, is Utah’s impressive bowl record influenced, at least in part, by the fact that the Utes underperform during the season (especially with late-season slumps) and get matched up against inferior opponents in the ensuing bowl game? Utah’s domination of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl could be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

As my glass-half-full daughter tried to teach me during a recent family vacation to Disney World, there is little to be gained by being pessimistic and looking for the negative aspects of a situation. Rather than over-analyzing what could have or should have been for the Utes this season or being over-critical of a very impressive bowl record, Utah fans can and should be happy that the Utes will be bowling again this year, extending the football season deep into the holiday season.

Here’s hoping Utah can make this a happy holiday season with yet another bowl win in whatever bowl they are given the opportunity to play.

Bleeding Red is sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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