SALT LAKE CITY — It remains to be seen how Utah will do in the Pac-10, once it moves to its new conference, next year. But one thing is abundantly clear: The Utes can play with the Big East.
The Utes opened their season Thursday with a 27-24 overtime win over Pittsburgh. That makes it two and counting over the program that brought you Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka and Dan Marino. Of course, it's also the program that brought a shockingly ill-prepared group to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and lost to Utah, 35-7.
Thursday featured different teams, different coaches and a different game, too. It wasn't until Joe Phillips' 21-yard field goal sailed through that the outcome was assured. When the teams met in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, Urban Meyer was just wrapping up a two-year glory run with the Utes and Walt Harris was exiting at Pitt. This time, Pitt was far more ready. In fact, it overcame a 24-13 deficit in the fourth quarter.
But in the end, it was same result, different year.
If the Utes weren't headed to an automatic qualifying conference already, they'd right now be railing on the BCS. But big conference or small, the Utes are off to a nifty start.
"We came out to show people it wasn't a hoax why we're in the Pac-12," said defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. "I'm happy for that. But I'm just focused on this year and winning the Mountain West."
Whatever the league, chalk up another win for Utah over the Big East, which moves the Utes' all-time record against that conference to 8-0. That's batting a thousand. Not even Brando did that. Percentage-wise, it's the same as Utah's record against the Big Sky, though not nearly as long (31-0). It's also far better than their record against Conference USA (30-18).
The win proves one of two things: Either Utah is ready to move up to an automatic qualifying conference, as planned, or the Big East doesn't deserve to be one.
OK, that's too harsh on a Pitt team that came ever-so-close.
"We had a feeling it was gonna be that way," said Siliga.
Pitt came in ranked No. 15 and left with this admonition from a certain crimson-colored program: Don't come out West.
It's dangerous out here.
The win moved Utah's home streak to 18 straight, which means it has been winning at home since approximately the year the administration building went up (1914). How long since they lost? Since before Chris Schenkel ever uttered the phrase, "The color and pageantry of college football!"
Exaggerations aside, the Utes are in one fine home groove. Ask coach Kyle Whittingham anything about his success at home and he'll credit the crowds. He did so this week, predicting "electricity in Rice-Eccles Stadium."
And he didn't mean the field lights.
But he did mean the crowd. It was announced in early summer that the Utes season tickets were gone. Shortly thereafter, the school issued a statement saying single-game tickets had vanished, too. Next came standing-room only tickets, snapped up like a taxi in a rainstorm.
Only way to get inside the stadium nowadays is to earn a spot on the team.
Meanwhile the crowd was everything Whittingham could have hoped, especially when safety Brian Blechen intercepted to set up the winning field goal.
While the Utes were ranked (24), and favored slightly by some oddsmakers, it's not like there weren't questions. For example: How do you replace six NFL draftees? Answer: By inventing six more.
"We showed people that just because we lost all the guys that we did, we don't need to take a step backward," said Siliga.
Thus the Utes held Heisman candidate Dion Lewis to 75 rushing yards and kept honors candidate Jon Baldwin to 77 yards — both acceptable numbers. Meanwhile, the Utah offense rolled for 405 yards.
The Utes could have had the game well in hand at the half, had it not been for a couple of glaring problems: a Shaky start and an interception. Utah fumbled twice in the first half, both compliments of receiver/return man Shaky Smithson. Still, the Utes charged headlong into their Pac-10 warmup season by beating a big conference team again. In the overall picture, it didn't answer every question. They still have Iowa State, Notre Dame, TCU and BYU to worry about.
But the Big East?
They beat those teams on demand.