SALT LAKE CITY —
They must be kidding.
The Utes think they can do that again?
Last year they started 0-4 in the Pac-12, but won four of their final five games to earn a Sun Bowl berth. Then they won that. At least for a day, they were back to their old tricks. And treats. For instance, they had Cal on the ropes from early to late in Saturday's 49-27 win. They picked off passes, recovered fumbles, rolled on special teams, completed long passes and rushed effectively.
In other words, they looked like they thought they'd look.
But they also did something nobody this side of Nostradamus expected: Reggie Dunn returned two kicks 100 yards for touchdowns.
Were it not for the end zone wall, he would have been somewhere in Canada by now.
Not that anyone should read too much into this. The 2012 Utes have shown far too many idiosyncrasies to declare themselves healed. They still have four games left. Cal, at 3-6, isn't exactly a team on the uptick.
But there's no denying the Utes bore a fair resemblance to last year's team. Someone (Media? Fans? Coaches?) said something to get them going. The big difference from other games was that they were paying attention to the job at hand.
Too often this year they've acted like checkout clerks, going through the motions.
This week it was a different team entirely, one with comeback on its mind. Who doesn't enjoy reliving their good moments? Certainly Dunn does. So much so that he became the first player in Utah history to record two 100-yard returns in the same game.
After the second run, he looked a little out of breath.
So did almost everyone in the stadium.
If the Utes were discouraged by their four-game losing streak, they didn't show it. Despite falling behind 3-0, they went ahead on Dunn's first marathon return, then moved to a 14-3 lead when Reggie Topps picked up a Cal fumble and went 17 yards for the score. Neither play was expected — nor were some other things. For instance, the sight of former coach Ron McBride standing in the serving line in the press box, wearing a Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse apron. McBride is a spokesman for the restaurant chain.
You might say the Utes were smokin'.
"No cheering in the press box, Coach," one writer told McBride. "They'll kick you out."
Cheering in the stands?
There was plenty of that.
Unlikely as it seems, the Utes kept alive hopes of repeating last year's improbable finish, in spite of a 0-4 start in the conference. Arizona (5-3) is the only team left on Utah's schedule with a winning record. Washington, Washington State and Colorado have shown their own tendencies to self-destruct.
Although quoting actors as experts is generally a bad idea, there was one good line from Clea DuVall who once said: "I try to keep an open mind but I'm so tired of the mediocrity."
It certainly took the Utes long enough to get the memo.
Before Saturday, the Utes had scored just 14 touchdowns all year against Division I opponents. Three of those touchdowns were on fumble recoveries or interceptions. Utah got five more TDs against FCS bottom-feeder Northern Colorado.
This time they scored seven touchdowns, six on offense.
Among Utah's biggest problems this season has been the onerous task of converting third down plays. Going into Saturday's game, the Utes were just 31-103 on third-down conversions (30 percent). Last week in a loss to Oregon State, they converted just three of 16. That's awful. That's largely because the Utes haven't been getting anywhere on first or second down, either.
On Saturday they converted eight of 13 third-down conversions.11 comments on this story
So for a day in October — too late for glory, but soon enough for optimism — the Utes stepped out of mediocrity for a few hours.
Next week they host Washington State. If the Utes are paying attention, they should easily beat the 2-6 Cougars. Otherwise, they'll suffer the same fate they did last year against lowly Colorado. Washington and Arizona could present problems. Colorado shouldn't.
But what do the Utes know?
They're just now starting to remember what happened 12 months ago.