CHAPEL HILL, N.C. In the end, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said there was simply "too much to overcome."
Saturday's 31-17 setback at North Carolina proved to be an uphill battle from the get-go when speedy freshman Brandon Tate returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Five turnovers (four fumbles and an interception), 12 penalties for 101 yards and the early touchdown combined to doom the Utes (3-2).
"We had our chances. Right now we are just a good football team. Until we can win a tough game on the road that's all we are going to be," Whittingham said. "That's all we are. Until we go into somebody's house and win a tough game on the road, we're just a good team."
Safety Casey Evans, who was flagged for roughing the passer in a pivotal call late in the third quarter that nullified a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by Eric Weddle, said that won't cut it. The Utes have higher aspirations.
"Definitely. If you can't win on the road you're going to have an average 6-5 season," Evans said. "We do need to win on the road if we're going to win the Mountain West, which is our ultimate goal.
"We've got to do it," he added. "Our goal is to be great. We don't want to be good. We want to be great."
With a date at Colorado State looming next Saturday, the Utes have plenty of things to shore up. Offense, defense and special teams were subpar in their final non-conference game of the season.
"You're not going to win any football games turning it over five times. It's just not going to happen," Whittingham said. "Defensively we played fairly well. Two things that hurt us the turnovers and letting them have a kickoff return (for a touchdown) on the opening play of the game. That's ridiculous. That should never happen."
Unfortunately for the Utes, it did.
Tate's kickoff return for a score was the first surrendered by Utah since 1999. After fielding it on the right hash, he eluded a tackle and ran past several Utes while running down the left sideline
Things didn't get much better after that.
With running back Quinton Ganther sidelined by a coaches decision for the first three series, the Utah offense sputtered. The Utes had three consecutive three-and-out drives and just one-yard of total offense.
Fortunately for Utah, North Carolina had some misery of its own. Two missed field goals a 24-yarder that was wide left and a 49-yarder that was wide right prevented the Tar Heels from pulling away.
After moving the chains for the first time late in the quarter, the Utes went on to score early in the second. Quarterback Brian Johnson scored on a two-yard run, with a spin move, to cap an 11-play drive. Utah managed to pull even despite being slowed along the way by four penalties.
In the midst of a barrage of turnovers by both teams, North Carolina managed to reclaim the lead on a 32-yard field by Connor Barth with 4:21 left in the half. Prior to the score, Evans intercepted a pass for Utah and defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell recovered a fumble for North Carolina. The latter set up the field goal.
The Utes avoided additional trouble when safety Tim Harris picked off a pass to end a late Carolina drive into Utah territory.
"Coming in at halftime 10-7 was a blessing as poorly as we played," Whittingham acknowledged.
Things improved and declined in the second half.
Utah came out firing in the third quarter. The Utes opened the half with positive yardage on nine consecutive plays. Johnson capped the drive with a 15-yard scoring strike to Travis LaTendresse.
Leading 14-10, Utah forced North Carolina to punt on the ensuing possession and was moving the ball downfield before Johnson was intercepted by Cedrick Holt on the UNC 32.
This time, the Tar Heels took care of the ball and eventually scored on Matt Baker's 32-yard touchdown pass to Wallace Wright.
The lead never changed hands again.
Following a Utah punt, Weddle intercepted Baker and dashed to the end zone. That's when the pivotal roughing-the-passer call came.
"We were battling. Our defense was playing good at that point," Weddle said. "To have a swing like that not go in our direction was tough."
The Utah defense gave up a 40-yard pass shortly thereafter and North Carolina quickly cashed in. A 1-yard touchdown run by Barrington Edwards made the score 24-14 with 14:02 remaining.
Though kicker Dan Beardall followed with a 35-yard field goal less than four minutes later, it wasn't enough. The Utes drew no closer the rest of the way. Three fumbles and a loss on downs ended their remaining offensive drives.
Another long North Carolina pass a 43-yard touchdown throw from Baker to Jesse Holley capped all scoring and sealed the outcome."I'm really proud of these kids and really excited about beating Utah, a good football team," said North Carolina coach John Bunting. "It's a difficult team to play against but our kids did a terrific job of adjusting, a great job of forcing some turnovers and a great job of harassing the quarterback."