COMMENTARY — Call it tradition, inertia, or just plain lack of creativity, but it has worked the past few years, and my father always said that if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it. Accordingly, once again here are the Twelve Ute Days of Christmas.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, I got gifts from the U:
Twelve Conference Teams — 12
Eleven Bowl Wins — 11
Ten Canadians — 10
Nine wins in football — 9
Eight Runnin’ Ute Wins — 8
Seven Yards Short — 7
Sixth-Ranked Red Rocks — 6
Five Freshmen Phenoms — 5
Four All-Americans — 4
Three Quarterbacks — 3
Two Wins in One Day — 2
And Another Win Over BYU! — 1
12 — I do not think I can overstate the significance of Utah joining the Pac-12 a few years back in terms of recruiting and overall national recognition. While the Utes struggled in both football and basketball their first few years after joining the conference, both programs have now proven they can compete with the big dogs consistently in conference play. The recognition Utah has gained nationally is prominent in rankings awarded in both football and basketball this year.
11 — Utah’s most recent victory in the Las Vegas Bowl gave the Utes 11 wins in their last 12 bowl games dating back to 1999, and an overall bowl record of 13-4.
10 — For anyone who has seen any of my prior Christmas columns, you know Bob & Doug McKenzie’s version of the Twelve Days of Christmas is one of my all-time favorite renditions of that timeless tune. Accordingly, I will always pay tribute to them, and this year 10 hoser athletes who hail from the Great White North play for Utah: (1) Dallin Bachynski (men’s basketball), (2) Paige Crozon (women’s basketball), (3) Taryn Wicijowski (women’s basketball), (4) Andy Trow (men’s skiing), (5) Sasha Zaitsoff (men’s skiing), (6) Paolina Carnevale (women’s swimming), (7) Ashlyn Karosas (women’s swimming), (8) Selin Ozturk (women’s swimming), (9) Louis-Philippe Gascon (men’s tennis), and (10) Jena Cheng (women’s tennis).
9 — Utah’s gridiron squad produced nine wins this year, which is the most since the 2010 season, before the Utes joined the Pac-12, and the first winning record in conference play (at 5-4) since joining the Pac-12.
8 — The Runnin’ Utes are on fire and have started the season 8-2. Similar to the American automobile manufacturer which reinvented itself with the advertising slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” Utah’s basketball team has reinvented itself and this is not the cream-puff schedule they played last year. The Runnin’ Utes are earning respect in collegiate basketball by playing a good mix of tune-up games and very challenging opponents. Utah just finished up a murderer’s row of games against Wichita State, BYU, Kansas and UNLV, playing three of those contests on the road, and emerging 3-1. Eight wins is only the start, and the Runnin’ Utes promise to be dancing come March.
7 — Utah running back Devontae Booker ended the season with 1,512 rushing yards to claim second place for school single season rushing performances. Booker was only seven yards short of John White’s record of 1,519. As the Las Vegas Bowl wound down last Saturday afternoon, it appeared that the Utes were intent on giving Booker the all-time record. With the game well in hand, Utah’s last possession focused on handing the ball off to Booker on 8 of 10 plays, broken up only by two passes in order to convert on third downs. As Booker was pulled from the game and replaced by Bubba Poole, Utah athletics tweeted that Booker was the Utes’ all-time single-season rusher, and the players and nearby fans heartily congratulated Booker as he came to the sideline. Unfortunately, it turned out Booker was seven yards short, and one or two more carries before he was replaced might have actually given him the single season rushing record.
6 — As Yogi Berra so famously said, it’s like déjà vu all over again. For the second year in a row, the Red Rocks are ranked No. 6 in the nation in the preseason coaches poll, released a few weeks ago. Last year Utah won the Pac-12 championship and placed seventh at nationals. With a number of strong performers returning, including Pac -12 Gymnast of the Year Tory Wilson, the Red Rocks are the preseason favorites to repeat as Pac-12 champs and take a shot at yet another national title. With so much to cheer about on The Hill with the resurgence of the football and men’s basketball teams, these talented ladies continue to be the Cal Ripken Jr.’s of Utah sports, who just get the job done year, after year, after year, as perennial contenders.
5 — The Runnin’ Utes have been energized by the talents of five freshman, four of whom are already making significant contributions on the hardwood court. Jakob Poeltl is the most prominent among this group, a 7-footer from Austria who has started in the middle virtually since the moment he set foot on campus. A trio of freshmen see regular time coming off the bench, including Utah native Brekkott Chapman from Roy, highly touted Kyle Kuzma from Michigan (the only redshirt freshman in the group), and Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year Isaiah Wright. Jake Connor rounds out the group, and although he hasn’t been a contributor yet, if any of the genes of his father (Utah associate head coach, Tommy Connor) have been passed on, then he promises to make his mark soon enough. Another talented freshman, Eris Winder, is expected to redshirt this year.
4 — Utah punter Tom Hackett is the school’s first Ray Guy Award winner, and has been named to multiple All-America teams. Nate Orchard won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s most outstanding defensive end, and has also been named to multiple All-America teams. Newcomer Kaelin Clay has also been recognized on multiple All-America teams, while Lowell Lotulelei earned second-team Freshman All-American honors from Scout.com.
3 — Of the six quarterbacks on Utah’s roster who have competed for the starting position this year, three of them played in the Las Vegas Bowl last Saturday. What is noteworthy is that none of the three signal-callers who actually saw the field in that game may be the starter next year. While Travis Wilson was named the game MVP, his performance was underwhelming, going 17 for 26 and 158 yards through the air with one touchdown and one interception. Wilson missed a number of shots downfield, and the best long ball he threw all day was a strike to Colorado State defensive back DeAndre Eilliott. While Wilson did run for three touchdowns from within the red zone, quite frankly I would rather see someone under center who can pass instead of run because Utah has always had more than capable running backs for the heavy lifting in the run game. The other two quarterbacks who played were former walk-on Adam Schulz and Wyoming transfer Jason Thompson. The biggest question for me is why didn’t either Brandon Cox or Connor Manning see the field? These two represent the hope of Utah’s offensive future, and at least one of them is likely to transfer in the off-season in order to find a situation where their talents will be recognized and they will be allowed to play. If Kyle Whittingham is hitching his wagon to Wilson, Schulz and Thompson (notably Jason, not Kendal), then he better be prepared to live with the consequences and the impact on his future as Utah’s head coach.
2 — Last Saturday was a banner day for Utah sports as the football team demolished Colorado State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, and then a few hours later across town, the Runnin’ Utes triumphed over UNLV in the MGM Grand Showcase. I don’t profess to have the memory of an elephant, and I am simply too lazy to do the actual research to confirm this factually, but I cannot ever recall the football and men’s basketball teams garnering wins on the same day on the road in the same city.
1 — When Utah beat BYU in Provo on December 10, it was not just a win, it was a statement. This will be the only match-up between the Utes and the Cougars in any major sport this year, and I believe this game exemplified the direction these two schools’ sports programs are heading. BYU has a rich history, and still tries hard, but there is no denying the sports program as a whole is in decline. On the other hand, Utah is on the rise and giving its fans plenty to cheer about this holiday season and beyond!
Dwayne Vance is a columnist covering the Utah Utes. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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