Bleeding Red: All is not lost for Utes, despite stumble at Arizona

Like three other top tens, Utah went down
Leaving all Ute Nation wearing a frown
But still the season is not over yet
So lift up your head, there’s no need to fret

COMMENTARY — There’s just no point in sugar coating this — notwithstanding some bright moments here and there, the Utes played poorly in virtually all aspects of the game on Saturday night as they went down in defeat to Arizona.

Disappointed? Yes. Is it the end of the world (or even the season)? No. Still proud of what Utah has accomplished this season? Yes!

utesFor a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South (notably, not fifth in a conference of twelve teams, but fifth in the six-team South Division), the Utes have done remarkably well this season. Let’s be honest, before a single down had been played this year, if someone had told you that Utah would be 8-2 with two games left to play, who wouldn’t have taken that result in a New York minute?

The Utes remain to be one of the elite teams in the Pac-12, with a legitimate shot to make the Pac-12 Championship (and even the Rose Bowl). However, Utah no longer controls its own destiny (and, like the Beatles, it is going to need a little help from its friends).

One of the most pleasant surprises of the season thus far has been the interest my teenage daughter, Chayne, has shown in the Utes. As soon as she realized that a trip to the Rose Bowl for Utah (and me and my son, Josh) also meant a trip to Disneyland for her (and my wife, Cheryl, and my younger daughter, Sammie), she has become one of the Utes’ biggest fans.

Utah may have stumbled last weekend, but it was in good company as all three ranked Pac-12 teams — including Stanford and UCLA — all lost. Speaking of surprising upsets, even raucous Ronda Rousey went down in defeat and lost her UFC title Saturday night. But I digress.

The Pac-12 has cannibalized itself right out of the college football playoffs. The conference champion is now guaranteed to have at least two losses, and possibly a third. With four top 10 teams remaining undefeated, and a bevy of very good one-loss teams waiting in the wings, I just can’t imagine a scenario in which a two loss Pac-12 champion makes the playoffs.

Kyle Whittingham
Kyle Whittingham

“Anything can happen, and we’re by no means out of it,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But that’s the Pac-12. Everybody takes turns beating everyone up. That’s the nature of the conference.”

Even with the college football playoffs off the table, the Rose Bowl is still a pretty good consolation prize. So what puzzle pieces have to fall in place for the Utes to win the Pac-12 and be invited to “the granddaddy of them all”?

In the South, two-loss USC and three-loss UCLA (in terms of conference standings) still control their own destinies. If either team wins out, then they will represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship game. However, winning out is easier said than done for both teams. The Bruins end the season with two tough road games, playing the Utes on The Hill this Saturday and the Trojans in the Coliseum the following week. Before hosting UCLA to end the regular season, USC has to go on the road to play a much-improved (and once again ranked) Oregon team. Utah plays its final two games at home — hosting UCLA this week and Colorado in the regular season finale.

So if the Utes beat the Bruins, then UCLA is out of the race. Even if Utah also beats Colorado, in order for the Utes to get the nod over the Trojans, either the Ducks or the Bruins have to beat USC. Unlike the many quirky plot twists in The Princess Bride, it is not inconceivable that the stars align and Utah plays in the Pac-12 Championship game. However, before I book a flight for my family for a magical holiday season in Southern California (Rose Bowl for the boys, Disneyland for the girls), let’s slow down and take this one game at a time (which I guarantee is the approach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes will be taking).

“These next two weeks will be very interesting, ” Whittingham said at Monday’s press conference. “We have no margin for error, obviously, our backs are to the wall.”

The next team up is UCLA. I am personally thrilled with a kickoff at 1:30 in the afternoon on Fox so I don’t have to agonize over the outcome into the wee hours of the night. However, whether the game is played in the light of day or under the lights of Rice Eccles Stadium, the Bruins promise to pose a big challenge for the Utes.

UCLA is third in the Pac-12 in pass offense, while Utah is a distant 11th.  The Bruins are also third in the conference in pass defense (and No. 1 in pass defense efficiency), with the Utes checking in at ninth. Advantage: UCLA.

UCLA is fourth in the conference in rushing offense, with Utah right behind at fifth. But the Utes are first in rushing defense with the Bruins lagging behind at seventh. Advantage: Utah.

While it may be an oversimplification to characterize the contest as Utah’s vaunted rushing attack against UCLA’s prolific passing, whichever team can prove to be successful in doing what it does best will likely win the game.

Oh yeah, basketball season started last week as well, with the T-Birds from Southern Utah giving the Runnin’ Utes all they could handle, although Utah was ultimately victorious. The Runnin’ Utes face another tough challenge tonight as they host San Diego State on The Hill.

Here’s hoping that Utah keeps my daughters’ Disneyland dream alive with a crucial win over UCLA on Saturday, and the Runnin’ Utes stay perfect against the Aztecs tonight.

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

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.


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