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Brad Rock: Utes show affinity for happy endings

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 2:06 a.m. MDT

Fireworks mark the start of the Poinsettia Bowl, in which the Utes defeated Navy 35-32 for another bowl victory. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) Fireworks mark the start of the Poinsettia Bowl, in which the Utes defeated Navy 35-32 for another bowl victory. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
SAN DIEGO — If you're the kind of person who cries at Disney films and craves desserts, you have to like the Utes.
They too have a fondness for syrupy touches and happy endings.
With a dash of suspense thrown in for good measure.
Thursday night at Qualcomm Stadium, Utah came from behind to win its seventh straight bowl game, holding off Navy, 35-32, in the Poinsettia Bowl. So a season that began in crisis ended up happily for the Utes after all. Is anyone actually surprised by this? Teams might stun them in September, when they don't entirely know what they have. Or catch them in October, when they have their usual mid-season attention lapse. Sometimes, Utah can even be stopped in November.
Utah quarterback Brian Johnson and his teammates show their euphoria Thursday as they celebrate their 35-32 victory over Navy in San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) Utah quarterback Brian Johnson and his teammates show their euphoria Thursday as they celebrate their 35-32 victory over Navy in San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
After all, that is when Utah plays BYU.
But don't mess with the Utes in December. If you want to stop them, you'll have to do it before they get in the holiday spirit. Each year they give their opponent the gift that keeps on giving — a season-ending loss.
Utah now has five bowl wins in five years. It is tied with Boston College for the most consecutive bowl victories (7). Beyond that, the win gave the program valuable national exposure — something the Utes' regular season TV package doesn't provide. And though they were far from perfect, they managed to pull things off when the lights went up. As usual.
Even with a considerable chunk of their team missing due to injury. And a less-than-perfect performance overall.
The Utes won the game with four starters out with injuries. Over the season, they lost nine starters to injury, yet still came back from a 1-3 start to land a bowl invitation. Their display of toughness caused Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo to wax philosophical on Wednesday about Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's attitude.
Several years ago, Niumatalolo noted, he was an assistant at UNLV, looking across the field with then-Rebel coach John Robinson. There stood Whittingham and his father, Fred, a former Utah assistant.
"Coach Robinson said to me, 'Fred Whittingham is the toughest person I've ever been around."'
When Niumatalolo agreed that the elder Whittingham must indeed be a tough coach, Robinson interrupted, "No, he's the toughest human being I've ever been around."
"So," added Niumatalolo Wednesday, "I know Coach (Kyle) Whittingham is really nice, but we know he's gonna try to rip our throats out."
Which indeed he did attempt.
Instead, he had to settle for a narrow victory.
Although Utah's bowl history the past decade is one of success, the Utes on Thursday didn't look much like the 2003, 2004 and 2005 bowl teams that started hot and never let up. Last season, in the Armed Forces Bowl, they did about what they needed — and that's all — in defeating Tulsa. This year, though, there didn't seem to be that much left in the tank. Navy lost two fumbles in the first half-quarter, and the Utes failed to capitalize. Meanwhile, quarterback Brian Johnson threw an interception.
It seemed for a time the Utes were doomed to lose, particularly when All-American kicker Louie Sakoda shanked two punts.
They finally built an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and seemed to have the game in hand. But a Navy touchdown and two-point conversion kept it interesting. Each team scored again, Utah's coming with just 1:27 to go, giving the Utes a 35-25 lead.
But things were just getting started.
Navy struck with a 58-yard touchdown with 57 seconds remaining, closing Utah's lead to 35-32, then completed an onside kick. But Joe Dale's interception ended the suspense with 26 seconds to go.
The Utes were still as unbeatable in winter as ever.
"We fought through some adversity," said Whittingham. "We're 5-0 in bowl games (the last five years), seven straight bowl games. Hey, let's keep it going."
As if they could do anything different.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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