SALT LAKE CITY — First Pac-12 press conference: check. First official day in the league: done. Pre-season rundowns: finished. First league game: complete.
All in the last four months.
First conference win? Gone and put to bed.
But not before losing a lot of sleep.
Seven weeks after beginning Pac-12 play, the Utes passed the final admission test by beating Oregon State 27-8. So they can relax, if not on the field, at least in their heads. Until now they've been a running punchline in the national media.
"Most definitely a relief," receiver Dres Anderson said. "All they were saying is we didn't belong in the conference."
Pac-12 security personnel no longer needs to say "And you are … ?" when the Utes show up.
They're not the nerdiest kids at the party, after all.
Nobody in their right mind would expect the Utes to glide from here, despite a cream cake schedule. Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Colorado aren't exactly the Fab Four. But the Utes do seem to have the formula for becoming bowl eligible: relentless defense, few turnovers and hope John White has a superb day. That worked to near perfection on Saturday. Except for a couple of lapses, they could have had a shutout, thanks to three interceptions and holding the Beavers to 263 total yards.
White rushed for 205 yards.
Still, the Utes remain wobbly on offense. If you shut down White, you shut down the entire operation. Cal did that and won easily. Quarterback Jon Hays continues to learn on the fly, throwing just 14 passes, completing six against the Beavers.
"I didn't really focus on negative things," Hays said. "I try to stay away from the papers and stuff."
As disastrous as the season was for the Utes going into Saturday's game (0-4 in the conference), there remained an element of spooky confidence throughout pre-Halloween week. They thought they could win. Like the stars from films like "The Others" and "The Sixth Sense," they were dead but didn't know it.
The optimism certainly wasn't due to Utah's recent play. Heaven knows it was terrible against Cal in last week's 34-10 loss. Rather, it was the fact that each of Utah's final five opponents were eminently beatable. Oregon State lost to Sacramento State and UCLA this year. UCLA got wiped out by lowly Arizona. Washington State has four straight losses. Arizona lost five in a row and fired its coach before beating UCLA. Colorado is 1-8.
In that sense, the last half of the Utes' season is cotton candy — unless you've lost a half-dozen starters to season-ending injuries. And unless you've been treating the football like you're catching fish with your bare hands. (14 turnovers in the previous three conference games).
When OSU and Utah last met, the Utes were everyone's favorite giant-killer. They were leading the charge among mid-majors in 2008, on their way to a shocking Sugar Bowl win. Meanwhile, the Beavers were ticketed for a win in the Sun Bowl.
Utah pulled off the victory with a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal in the final two minutes.
And everyone loved 'em for it.
This time the prospects didn't look as good.
Then: Brian Johnson at quarterback and kicker Louie Sakoda leading the way.
Now: Jon Hays at QB and an early-season kicking dilemma.
Then: Everyone loves an underdog.
Now: Get real, kid, you're in the deep end of the pool.
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