Brad Rock: Utah Utes football: Gritty Sun Bowl comeback turns Utes' blahs into hurrahs
EL PASO, Texas — Tony Bergstrom's stare came from afar, beyond the sun-baked streets and across the Rio Grande. Clearly, it was nowhere near the interview room at Sun Bowl Stadium.
"Ohmigosh!" the Ute offensive tackle said and he stared blankly at the floor.
At first he spoke softly, then whispered, then mouthed the words.
"Oh. My. Gosh."
Yes, well, sometimes words fail.
The University of Utah wrapped up its season Saturday with a 30-27 Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. It was a game the Utes rallied to win in overtime after trailing by two touchdowns with under eight minutes remaining in regulation.
There they came, riders on the wind, in a town once populated by gunslingers and horse thieves. Isn't there a little of both in this year's Utes? It was a familiar scenario: A strangely calm quarterback who had no serious business executing the final drives. A half-pint running back who began the year as a third-stringer. A piecemeal team with 10 key or starting players out with injuries.
A win when it should have been a loss.
"Really," coach Kyle Whittingham said, "it was a microcosm of our season."
So what of this season? Not quite miraculous, but certainly attention-grabbing. How else do you describe a year in which the aforementioned won four Pac-12 games, beat two Atlantic Coast Conference teams (Georgia Tech and soon-to-be-included Pitt), and won a bowl game — without its starting quarterback?
"We can't come all the way to El Paso the whole week to lose," receiver Reggie Dunn said. "We came for one reason: to win the game."
Saturday's contest wasn't a remix of the last time these teams played. In the 2005 Emerald Bowl, the Utes caught a disinterested Georgia Tech with a couple of quick strikes and it was over. But that Utah team included an NFL-bound Brett Ratliff at quarterback and an aggressive, quick-strike offense. This offense was the Pac-12's least productive, despite a record-setting career by 5-foot-8 running back John White.
Saturday the Utes found themselves in the tenuous position of trying to manage another game, not seize it.
Nevertheless, Norm Chow did show up. The new Hawaii coach made a curtain call as Utah's offensive coordinator, saying he wanted to be part of the experience. He opened with three straight passes and Utah scored on its first possession. The second half began much the same. Hays threw deep three straight times. They were all incomplete, but they did serve to make a point: The Utes weren't conceding.
"When you have a tailback that rushed for 1,400 yards, they're going to do what everyone else does and dare us to throw," said coach Kyle Whittingham.
So they did, 32 times – a season high.
They even flirted with trying a two-point conversion after pulling to a 24-23 deficit with just 1:32 to go. The thinking was that with Georgia Tech being one of the country's best red zone teams, they didn't want to wind up in an overtime.
But they did that, too.
As usual, quarterback Jon Hays wasn't overpowering, but he was fiercely determined. And he didn't let a let a third-quarter interception that went for a 74-yard score faze him. He instead picked a few spots. A three-yard pass to Kendrick Moeai that pulled the Utes within seven. A 28-yard throw to DeVonte Christopher that tied the score with 1:32 left. A one-yard toss to Shawn Asiata for the game's first touchdown.
Georgia Tech made a field goal in overtime, but then came the draw play that sent White up the middle for the winning score.
"I just looked left," said White, "and saw his (referee) arms go up, and I'm like, 'Touchdown! Game over!' "
In the third quarter, Tech had Utah right where it wanted: trailing by two scores. Unflustered, the Utes came back to cap the season. With a final 8-5 record, they certainly didn't launch ships. But a loss would have left them at a muddy 7-6, a team that arguably didn't deserve to be in the postseason.
One win, but a world of difference.
As the Utes wandered about the field after the game, they were joyous, tired, relieved and dazed.
You might even say a bit unfocused.
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