SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham settled in at the podium following Saturday's 31-14 loss to Washington and tapped the microphone, checking for sound. Nothing. He tapped again.
"Hello?" he said. "Hello?"
Dead as a doorknob.
That's how it went for the Utes. The system was out.
Utah played its first-ever Pac-12 home game and by all appearances the dire warnings are true. It's going to be a siege. Arizona State? Look out. Cal? Could be trouble. Oregon State, Washington State and UCLA? Don't laugh. Any of them — none of which is the best in the Pac-12 — could make the Utes look foolish.
"Pretty much the complete opposite of two weeks ago," said offensive tackle John Cullen.
Ah, yes, the glory days. Two weeks ago, Utah fashioned seven BYU turnovers into a 54-10 win. This time it was the Utes with acute fumbilitis and interceptiosis. The short story is that they fumbled on the opening kickoff, which accounted for Washington's first touchdown. They fumbled again on the Washington 6 and were intercepted at the Husky 4.
The longer story is that the Utes finished with five turnovers. Added to the fact quarterback Jordan Wynn missed the second half with an injured shoulder, it's a fuzzy picture indeed. The good news for Wynn is that it's not the same shoulder he injured last year. The bad news is that, as coach Kyle Whittingham noted, the situation "doesn't look good."
The same could be said for the Utes chances of winning the Pac-12, now that they're 0-2.
"You can't beat a Pac-12 team — well, I don't know about any Pac-12 team — but you can't beat Washington with five turnovers," Whittingham said.
This big-conference stuff is going to be a worry.
So the big reality check has arrived. After 15 months of anticipation, it's down to the doing, and that is proving difficult. They're confirming what Whittingham hinted at all along: they can't make Mountain West Conference mistakes in their new league. But that was just the flubs in the first half, when they turned the ball over deep in Washington territory. The second half brought even more reality. Washington simply overran the Utes. Husky tailback Chris Polk ran for 101 yards ... in the third quarter alone. With the likelihood that Utah will host ASU next week without Wynn, Utah's conference dreams could be gone before you can say "exit strategy."
This season seems destined to test Utah fans as much as the team itself. Saturday it was a full house, not even standing room seats to sell. But by the end of the day, Washington players were calling out, "Welcome to the Pac-12!"
It was downright inhospitable.
There wasn't a plate of cookies or a fruit basket to be seen.
It's true the Utes caused a lot of their own pain. They only trailed by three at the half, despite a good-faith effort to shoot off their own big toe. The Huskies weren't much better in the early going, with a fumble and an interception on the books.
It looked a lot like BYU did against the Utes, when the Cougars had seven turnovers.
For Utah, it was a historic day. Sure, the Utes have played Pac-12 schools, but never on even terms. This time the teams really were keeping score. Could one of the conference's better offenses overtake Utah's intrepid defense?
One thing the Utes didn't want to do was get in a nail-biter. The Huskies have won seven straight games that were decided by eighth or fewer points. Three of those were decided on the final play.
As it was, last-second plays were the last thing they needed to worry about.
Are the Utes really ready for their new league? Hard to say, since they wasted two shots at easy scores. It could have swung the momentum. At the same time, it was obvious they're now swimming in the deep end of the pool. Washington is only a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, Utah might be lucky even to reach that.
Trying to explain the turnovers, Whittingham said, "It's tough to make rhyme or reason out of it sometimes."
Tougher still to decide if you belong in the club or just sneaked your way into the party.
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