SOUTH BEND, Ind. — So if it's not the Notre Dame mystique, what has been getting inside the Utes' heads?
Other than VERY disturbing images.
Forget the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne and the Golden Dome. The Utes have far more to worry about than that. For instance, 10 penalties in the first half of Saturday's 28-3 loss to the Irish. And only 10 points in the last eight quarters, not to mention the three interceptions and three lost fumbles. Plus, just 464 yards of offense in two games — a so-so single game for the previous Utes.
A team that once seemed unstoppable is now acting irreparable.
"I don't really know what the issues are, but something has got to be done," said quarterback Jordan Wynn. "We've got to change something and start heading in the right direction."
This much is certain: The confidence that led them to eight wins to start the season is a memory. In that span the Utes averaged 45 points; the last two games, five points.
"We were riding high, eight in a row, and now we've dropped the last two ball games and right now we're not feeling real good about ourselves," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "But nobody feels sorry for us."
Some (hello, BYU and TCU) might even be enjoying it. After a surprising start on the year, the Utes had climbed to the No. 5 spot in the BCS rankings. That wasn't just impressive, it was also surprising. With a team that lost six players to the NFL, the expectation was that the Utes would be rebuilding — or at least replacing — this time around.
As it turned out, they slipped past Pitt, then advanced unmolested through their schedule. The only warning sign came in a 28-23 win over Air Force, two weeks ago. But everyone wrote that off as Air Force's quirkiness. When the Utes followed with a 59-6 rout of Colorado State, the stage was set for the match-up between Top 10 teams last week. But while losing 47-7 to TCU might be excusable, this one was not. This was the Notre Dame that lost to Tulsa two weeks ago and got whipped by Navy. The same Notre Dame that featured a freshman quarterback in his first start.
Hoping to minimize the "wow" factor, Whittingham made sure his team barely glanced sideways on its trip. He held a team meeting at a South Bend hotel on Friday afternoon. Nary a bootleg copy of "Rudy" or "Knute Rockne, All American" could be seen. Following the walk-through, the Utes bused to Michigan City, then returned to South Bend on Saturday morning.
There was no staring at the Heisman displays, no shopping in the bookstore.
Whatever the Utes tried didn't work. After logging the 10 first-half penalties, they fumbled on the second-half kickoff. Notre Dame scored on the first play of the third quarter and it was all over but the polishing.
"Did we talk a lot about Notre Dame tradition and so forth?" said Whittingham. "No. We're playing those 11 guys on the field right there. We're not playing Joe Montana or Joe Theismann or all these great players that have been through here. We're focused on the 11 that are out there, and the 11 out there ended up being pretty good."
Whether Utah's issues are internal or just psychological, they aren't saying. In part, the law of averages is just catching them. Still, you have to wonder: Isn't this the same Utes who rolled up 68 points on Iowa State?
"We haven't played well in successive weeks," said Whittingham, noting that there are still two regular season games remaining. "It could still turn out a very good season, but we've got our issues to work through."
Sometimes ignoring the scenery just isn't enough.
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