I know we’re a better football team overall. I’ve said that over and over. But today the record doesn’t show that. —Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham
EUGENE, Ore. — The clouds had cleared, but the storm was only beginning for the Utes on Saturday. It hit like a thunderclap in the third quarter. That’s what it says on the message board promos at Autzen Stadium: lightning and thunder but no rain.
After all, it never really rains on the Oregon Ducks. They're a national contender most years. They've sold out 95 straight games. And they have more money than, well, Scrooge McDuck.
Thus when the Utes scored shortly after a 48-yard pass to freshman Dominique Hatfield, it appeared they had a chance. But Oregon took only a heartbeat to answer: an 86-yard touchdown return by the irrepressible De'Anthony Thomas.
Final score: Oregon 44, Utah 21.
So that’s all ya got?
The game ended with Oregon pouring it on.
It’s hard to characterize the Utes as quitters. After Oregon scored 27 unanswered points, Utah got in the end zone once more. In the longer view, the Utes could have been 8-2 instead of 4-6, with some luck this season. They lost by a touchdown or less to Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State. In more important terms, they could have been 4-3 in the Pac-12 instead of 1-6. And they could have been bowl-bound instead of sweating it out, hoping Washington State and Colorado will have glass jaws.
Otherwise, for the first time in 15 years, Utah will have gone two seasons without a bowl appearance.
Is Utah better than its record?
“We like to think that, but at the end of the day we’re still 1-6 in conference, which is terrible,” defensive end Trevor Reilly said. “We have, many would say, the toughest schedule in the country. We’ve had some injuries, but then again, nobody cares.”
Certainly not Oregon.
As it is, this is what the Utes have: not enough. Their Pac-12 ceiling is similar to Arizona’s, Colorado’s, Washington State’s and Cal’s, which is to say not winning titles but sometimes being good enough for a low-rent bowl game. Good enough to be in it for 2½ quarters with America’s fleetest teams, but bad enough to be far out of the chase.
To make its point, Oregon answered each time Utah made a move, except at the end when it platooned in the subs. When Oregon went ahead 44-14, and Byron Marshall over-celebrated, an assistant coach corralled him and unobtrusively motioned at the scoreboard. He appeared to be saying, “When you get in the end zone, act like you’ve been there.”
Oh, they’ve been there. Boy have they been there. The Ducks came into the game ranked No. 3 in scoring nationally, first in the Pac-12. If there’s a consolation, the Utes actually held Oregon below its average.
The fact the Utes got routed was no surprise. It should have happened. The Ducks were thinking national championship until being sidetracked by Stanford nine days earlier. Yes, their feathers were ruffled.
Fans began exiting on Saturday with 10 minutes to go. They’d seen enough. No reason to stay for the gore-fest.
This raises the ongoing question of whether Utah will ever do better in its ritzy new conference. Ironically, its best chance might have been its first season in the league, when USC was ineligible and the Utes were in the race until a season-ending loss to Colorado.
In three seasons they’re 4-5, 3-6 and 1-6 in league play.
Is it any wonder coach Kyle Whittingham has said he’d like to play one FCS opponent a year?
Utah did beat Stanford this year, on a nicely conceived plan, the best win in Utah’s post-Mountain West existence. But it was one game in a bad season.
There are reasons for this, besides being outmanned. Utah hasn’t had a healthy quarterback since the Stanford game. It didn’t have tight end Jake Murphy for six weeks, though it did on Saturday.
It wasn’t enough.
Now Utah’s bowl hopes rest on beating Washington State and Colorado. That’ s what everyone expected. Utah is looking to pick on the other small fries, which is not a great option.
Asked where his program is compared to three years ago, Whittingham said, “I know we’re a better football team overall. I’ve said that over and over. But today the record doesn’t show that.”
Added Reilly, “It’s just one of those things where — I don’t know what it is — but we have not been able to step on people. It’s kind of a yearly thing for us.”
That’s where they are. And where they’ve been. For another year in the Pac-12, it seems the eagle has landed.
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