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Brad Rock: Utes have yet to face tough part of schedule

Published: Saturday, Oct. 23 2010 11:40 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — With 14 minutes left in Saturday's Utah-Colorado State game, the press box went momentarily dark — which on some level seemed appropriate.

Down on the field, the Utes were playing lights out, too.

Utah wrapped up the cartoon portion of its season Saturday with a 59-6 rout of CSU, moving the Utes' record to 7-0. It's hard to get better than that.

Yet amazingly, they actually might need to.

Exactly where the Utes can improve is an issue for nitpickers and coaches to decide. How do you improve on a double fudge sundae? Pour more chocolate on it, of course.

"We can always play better," said linebacker Chaz Walker.

Considering the Utes have scored 56, 56, 68, 30 and 59 points in their last five games, that's a scary thought. The low point of their last month was last week's 30-6 win over Wyoming — but that was after building the lead to 30-0.

"Numbers are numbers," said defensive end Christian Cox. "I know on defense we can play better."

Next week marks the start of the serious part of the Utes' schedule. They play at Air Force, which should be a considerable upgrade. While only TCU is having a great year among Utah's remaining opponents, all of them (AFA, TCU, Notre Dame, San Diego State and BYU) are better than most of the teams the Utes have played.

Through the first seven games it has become obvious the Utes are good, but how good remains the $18 million BCS bowl question. The combined records of Utah's opponents were just 12-35 going into Saturday's games, and that included wins over such non-notables as Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, Southern Utah and New Mexico.

But by last week the Utes seemed to be fading, thanks to three interceptions against Wyoming. Yet they fixed that with a zero-interception game on Saturday. They ran up 648 offensive yards, sixth-most in school history, and held the Rams to a silly 213. They did fumble three times, losing one, and accentuating the small but persistent turnover issue. Yet to criticize would be straining at gnats.

"It's just the little stuff," said guard Caleb Schlauderauff.

Regardless of how the season has gone, the second half will be tougher. Utah's remaining opponents are 25-14 combined. Playing well against CSU — OK, annihilating CSU — mattered for the Utes. It wasn't panic time, just brow-furrowing time, like when something pops up on a strep test. Nothing to be overly concerned about, but if left untreated it could turn into a problem. Utah went into Saturday's game ranked 67th nationally in turnovers with 12.

Still, here they are, working on their third perfect season in seven years. That fact isn't lost on Ute fans, many of whom thought this would be a decent year but not a spectacular one. But while those were seasons of destiny, this one has been harder to analyze. They've defeated two BCS conference teams (Pitt, Iowa State), but neither has turned out to be very good. Everyone else (UNLV, New Mexico, San Jose State, Wyoming, CSU) was road kill.

Some of Utah's success is its ability to focus on (arrrgh!) one game at a time, a tired but effective means of dealing with scrutiny. Part of it is the schedule, which is relatively weak. However, trouble could be coming. Air Force gave TCU a nice game through two quarters on Saturday and has always given the Utes problems. It is the only Mountain West team with an all-time winning record (14-12) against Utah.

Nine of the last 12 match-ups have been decided by a touchdown or less.

"That may be our toughest game to date," said coach Kyle Whittingham.

Yet somehow the Utes keep making look it all too easy.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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