The Utes are back in bowl business again. It's no longer a matter of if, but where.
SALT LAKE CITY — As the Great Recession trundles along, people have learned to lower expectations but be grateful nonetheless. Things they took for granted no longer come so easily. For instance, pay raises and bonuses.
And bowl games.
Those things don't happen automatically.
Used to be the Utes thought bowl games were their inalienable right. Good bowls, too. Sugar, Fiesta. They didn't even want to consider obscure bowls like the New Mexico Bowl.
But in 2011, things are tougher.
Even so, the Utes are bowl eligible again, for the ninth straight year. They're not going to the Rose Bowl, but the Alamo Bowl? Still a tad too lofty. Holiday Bowl? Lower. But if they keep rolling, it could be the Sun Bowl and all the sights (any sights?) El Paso can afford. Even a trip to the same ol', same ol' Las Vegas Bowl — as the fifth-place team in the Pac-12 — wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen.
Nowadays they'd be delighted for another trip to the MGM buffet, or a "Mindfreak" showing at the Luxor.
Speaking of freaky magic acts, how else could you describe the 2011 Utes? On a year in which they've survived with a backup quarterback, in a bigger league, they're already surpassed what a month ago seemed unlikely.
Talk about sleight of hand.
On Saturday they drubbed UCLA 31-6. That Sun Bowl, slotted for the No. 4 team in the Pac-12, is looking downright attainable. With the league's two worst teams (Washington State and Colorado) remaining, the Utes could wrap up the regular season like an anthem, all the high notes and cymbal crashes. After starting 0-4 in the Pac-12, they have now defeated Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA in succession and are 6-4 overall.
Amazing what you can do with duct tape and spit.
"We're starting to find out who we are," said coach Kyle Whittingham.
So the Utes' inaugural season in the Pac-12 has been a struggle and an adventure. They knew that going in. What they didn't know was that seven players who either started or played major minutes would have season-ending injuries.
Talk about going to the gala without a jacket.
As predicted, snow was falling at kickoff, the field in an inch-deep layer of white. Winter had finally hit. Not that the players wanted to admit it. Two UCLA players came out bare-chested during warm-ups and tossed a football. Not to be outdone, two Utes did the same.
Is there something about snow football that slows the synapses?
"It was fun," said offensive tackle John Cullen. "It was just something we did. It wasn't really that cold."
Regardless, the game turned out just as the Utes had hoped: frosty, miserable and earth-bound.
"We're the University of Utah, we're up here in snow country," Whittingham said with a hint of glee. "We believe that plays to our advantage."
Quarterback Jon Hays completed only two passes in the first half, five for the game. But once again, the numbers mattered. One was a 33-yarder to Dres Anderson that set up Utah's second touchdown. It was all the Utes needed. They totaled only 291 yards but the defense held UCLA to 295, thanks to Conroy Black's two interceptions.
Hence, the Utes are back in bowl business again. It's no longer a matter of if, but where.
"It's huge," Cullen said. "To be able to turn the season around from possibly one of the worst years we've had, losing games like that, to this. It's a weird feeling. You talk to anyone, we don't know how to lose here. It's not something we've done, so to lose that many games early was a definitely a shocker. So I'm glad we got it turned around."
Added a slightly rueful Whittingham: "We were 3-4 at one point, and if you do the math, we still got a shot, but yeah, I mean (bowl eligibility) was a concern for a period of time."
Yet somehow the market rebounded.