SALT LAKE CITY — So the biggest question following Utah's season-opening win over Montana State on Thursday had to be this: Is it the Big Sky Conference or the Pac-12 the Utes hope to win?
Utah played its first game as a Pac-12 member Thursday at Rice-Eccles, coming away with a 27-10 verdict. Next week it's on to Los Angeles to play Southern California, which is like going from 20 mph to 100 mph without shifting gears.
Asked if his team played more like a Big Sky team or Pac-12 team, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said, "Probably in between. But we won't win a game in the Pac-12 if we play like this the rest of the way, it's pretty evident."
So here comes the big time, ready or not. For 18 minutes on Thursday, the Utes looked like they were going to send the Bobcats back to Bozeman in small pieces. Yet the rest of the way they were as tame as house pets.
"We can't play like that next week and expect to win," said quarterback Jordan Wynn.
While the winning margin was good enough, the disconcerting part for Utah is that MSU outscored the Utes 10-3 after the early second quarter.
"They didn't do anything that overwhelmed us," said MSU linebacker Clay Bignell.
It's true. The real story on the Utes is that they don't yet know who or what they are. They played a fine, smaller-division team from the Big Sky, and for most of the night it was hard to tell which team will be playing at the L.A. Coliseum next week.
After more than a year of buildup toward the Pac-12, Thursday was Utah's first chance to look pretty. It didn't happen. Instead, the Utes looked a lot like they did in the Mountain West. They impressed MSU coach Rob Ash with their speed and physicality, yet failed to completely subdue the Bobcats.
"We did some good things," said Wynn, "but it was not our best showing."
Oddly enough, in the first half about the only thing that troubled the Utes was themselves, in a certain way. It was the long-revered shovel pass — invented right here in Utah — that set up MSU's only touchdown.
Until then, the game had been as one-sided as casino rules. Ultimately, both teams ended up with generally what they wanted. The Bobcats were $375,000 richer, having played at Utah, while the Utes got to try out a couple of things – the most creative being a fake punt in the second quarter for 18 yards.
They never had to really sweat after building a 24-0 lead, but that doesn't mean they didn't get embarrassed a few times. The shovel pass worked to perfection for the Bobcats, who got a 39-yard gain on the play.
That's not to imply the Utes accomplished nothing. New linebacker Brian Blechen – formerly a safety – picked off two passes. Running back John White rushed for an impressive 150 yards.
On the other hand, Wynn didn't look much different than he did last year with his shoulder injured. He passed for 101 yards, most of them coming on short, easy tosses. Several times he overthrew or under-threw his receivers. He said afterward that his arm felt fine.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow's offense had some decent moments, but the only dazzling one was the fake punt that went for 18 yards.
All in all the Utes looked fair but not sharp, only out-gaining MSU by by 34 total yards. Maybe the best news of the night for Whittingham was that his kicking game – a big concern all month – looked just fine. Coleman Petersen nailed a pair of mid-range field goals and all three of his PAT attempts.
The biggest issue for Utah this year, though, will be Wynn; how he's recovering from his shoulder injury, how well he plays. As he goes, so go the Utes. While he showed he's not fragile by absorbing a blindside sack in the first half, he never aired things out, either. His longest pass play was 15 yards.
Mostly he played like a guy protecting a secret.
In the end, the Utes raised as many questions as they answered. Are they ready for the Pac-12? From here on they have 11 straight games they could lose. The good news for Utah is that it's undefeated. The bad news: Nobody left on the schedule looks remotely as beatable as Montana State.
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