Brad Rock: Utah Utes may be punching tickets back to Las Vegas, or worse

Title hopes gone, a return to Vegas may be reality

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 6:57 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Huh? That was it?

I haven't seen an act disappear that quickly since those two guys sang "Macarena."

Utah's dreams of winning the Pac-12 South Division ended Saturday with a storm of turnovers and a shot of reality. It's not like the coaches and players were unaware of the threat of playing in the league. Put the Utes' best players on the field for an entire season and they might do OK. But send them out with a backup quarterback and you have freeway pileup.

"The conference hopes, a title, obviously (going) 0-3 — that's insurmountable," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We've just got to find a way to win our next game."

A year that began with high optimism is on the skids after a 35-14 loss to Arizona State. Utah is 2-3 overall, winless in three Pac-12 games. Save the roses on another season. This one they'll be lucky to end up in a familiar place like Albuquerque or Las Vegas. Utah is off to its worst start since 2006, when Whittingham's team lost to Oregon State and Air Force, beat UCLA, lost to UNLV and then beat Utah State. Yet that year they ended up 9-4. After the rocky start, they went on a seven-game win streak and beat Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.

However, that was when the schedule was speckled with New Mexicos and Wyomings and Colorado States. This year they have a road game at Pitt, followed by six straight conference games. None of the remaining Pac-12 opponents is great and some have been downright awful (Hello, UCLA, Arizona, OSU) at times. But which of these teams is Utah supposed to beat?

Bargain basement opponents are hard to come by these days.

"Seems like we've lost 10 in a row, that's how I feel right now," Whittingham said.

Curiously, the Utes have looked decent for fairly long periods. They took USC into the closing seconds, played Washington and Arizona State evenly in the first halves. But in both of the last two games the defense broke down late.

Defense, though, is far from Utah's biggest worry. Star receiver DeVonte Christopher left during the game with a leg injury. Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn will likely be out at least two more weeks – long enough for the season to turn from bad to abysmal.

Ticking off a list of assorted player injuries, Whittingham noted that "nobody cares" about their problems. Every opponent will eye them like pizza at a sleepover. For all their problems — foremost being 10 turnovers in the last two games — depth is equally disconcerting. Just when Wynn was starting to look as he did in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, he was gone with a shoulder injury.

Now they're going with Jon Hays, a guy with a good arm but a glaring lack of experience. This is a player who intended to go to Nebraska-Omaha until it shuttered its football program. Utah picked him up as an insurance policy.

Unfortunately for the Utes, it had a high deductible.

Hays didn't seem particularly nervous in his first Division I start and even had some highlights. He pulled off a 46-yard flea-flicker and a 77-yard pass play to Christopher, though the latter was called back on a penalty. But there were three interceptions.

Utah set out with the plan to contain ASU on defense and generate enough offense to squeak by, and it did for a while. John White went for a 30-yard touchdown on Utah's first possession. With seconds left in the half, Utah was on the ASU 16. But Hays threw an interception to end the excitement.

Still, Utah took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter on a short pass to Dallin Rogers.

Soon, though, the problems began. Turnovers began mounting and ASU scored 25 straight points to end the discussion.

Now the Utes can boil their season down to becoming to become bowl-eligible, which means they must win four of their next seven games. Realistically they have no shot at anything better than the Las Vegas Bowl, home to the fifth-place team in the Pac-12. More likely it would be the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or — on the bottom end — the New Mexico Bowl.

"We've got to look at it as a new season, get bowl eligible," Hays said.

Seems in their new league, with their unintended quarterback, even a trip to Vegas could be a mirage.

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