Although the worst scenario materialized, the Utes still have something to play for — a ninth consecutive bowl appearance.
SALT LAKE CITY — As bad as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham felt after Friday afternoon's 17-14 loss to Colorado, it probably escalated later in the evening. California's 47-38 win at Arizona State added insult to injury.
Had the heavily favored Utes taken care of business and defeated the Buffaloes, they would be gearing up for an appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game against Oregon. Cal's road victory, coupled with USC's triumph over UCLA late Saturday, would have completed a necessary tri-fecta for Utah.
It didn't happen, though. Nothing mattered after the Utes failed to handle the only variable they had control over. Their loss to Colorado gave UCLA a berth in the league finale.
In his postgame press conference at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Whittingham acknowledged that the question of having everything else fall into place ran through his mind.
"I'm sure I'll feel worse," Whittingham said. "But we'll see what happens."
Although the worst scenario materialized, the Utes still have something to play for — a ninth consecutive bowl appearance. They'll find out where next Sunday. Possibilities include games in San Antonio, San Diego, El Paso, Las Vegas, San Francisco or Albuquerque.
The bowl picture is as cloudy as Utah's performance was against Colorado, producing more questions than answers.
For starters, what happened to kicker Coleman Petersen? Days after being named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week, the junior went 0-for-3 in the Utes' home finale. His misses included a 48-yarder with two seconds remaining that could have forced overtime.
"Coleman's been effective all year. Today just wasn't a good day for him," Whittingham said. "You've got to look at the whole body of work and his whole body of work this season was very good. Like I've said, for a position that was a big question mark coming out of fall camp, I thought that he gave us a lot of positive results this year. I'm proud of him for the year he had overall, judging the season as a whole."
Petersen's wide kicks weren't the only missed opportunities by Utah. Whittingham reeled off other shortcomings, most in the second half, that proved costly as well. The list includes failing to field a well-executed onside kick; not being able to get the ball to wide-open receiver Reggie Dunn in a critical juncture; a pivotal fumble; a couple of late sacks; and the inability to establish a physical run attack.
"I don't think we came out with a lack of focus or a lack of determination," Whittingham said. "I just don't think we executed and took care of our assignments as well as we would have liked."
Injuries to running back John White IV (ankle), right guard Sam Brenner (neck) and defensive end Joe Kruger (ankle) certainly didn't help.
All in all, not the best of days for the Utes.
"We had a perfect opportunity," said defensive end Derrick Shelby. "We didn't make the best of it."
When asked what went wrong, the senior wasn't sure.
"I don't know. Probably a little bit of overconfidence and just a lack of focus, probably something like that," Shelby said while walking off the field. "But either way we had a chance to win. We just didn't come through with it."
Senior linebacker Chaz Walker, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles, noted it was crazy to think about.
"I don't even know what to say," he said. "(The Buffaloes) played a great game. They came out and outplayed us. They made more plays when they had a chance."
Walker didn't think the Utes overlooked Colorado. He just thought they failed to match the Buffaloes' energy. Colorado seniors, he explained, were determined to end their program's 23-game skid on the road.
Utah, however, had much more to lose.
"This is a big loss for us," said defensive lineman Dave Kruger. "Everybody knows what was at stake."
As disappointing as the Senior Day setback was, Whittingham doesn't think it tarnishes the team's bounce back from an 0-4 start to conference play.
"I don't think a loss like this diminishes the turnaround we've had. We could have gone completely in the tank and we didn't," Whittingham said. "We fought our way back, fought our way back into a bowl situation. It was remarkable that we are even in the situation (to reach the Pac-12 title game)."
A team meeting is scheduled for Monday. Bowl possibilities and a general preparation plan will be discussed. As usual, Whittingham plans to utilize all 15 practices if possible.
Whittingham also noted that the coaches will hit the recruiting trail on Sunday.
INJURED UTES EXPECTED TO BOWL
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah offensive lineman Sam Brenner, who left Rice-Eccles Stadium in an ambulance with a neck injury during Friday's 17-14 loss to Colorado, was released from the hospital Saturday morning and is expected to play in next month's bowl game. The Utes got similar good news about running back John White IV and defensive end Joe Kruger. Both suffered ankle injuries in the game, but are expected to be ready for the program's ninth consecutive bowl appearance.
The Utes will learn their destination and opponent when matchups are announced on Dec. 4.
— Dirk Facer