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Brad Rock: Life changes quickly, as do Ute prospects

Published: Monday, July 27 2015 11:53 p.m. MDT

Utah Utes running back Tauni Vakapuna (24) fumbles the ball after getting hit hard by Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Ray Polk (26) and Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Anthony Perkins (7) in Salt Lake City  Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes running back Tauni Vakapuna (24) fumbles the ball after getting hit hard by Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Ray Polk (26) and Colorado Buffaloes defensive back Anthony Perkins (7) in Salt Lake City Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Gingerly he folded himself into an interview room chair, easing down as though climbing into a hot tub.

"Uhhhh," Kyle Whittingham groaned wearily.

"Aww," he exhaled as though in pain.

He had worried about days such as Friday's 17-14 loss to Colorado — one of the worst teams in the Pac-12. It happened so fast. An awful start, a spirited comeback, a fumble in the crunch. A reliable kicker short-circuiting. Key players gone in an instant.

"I learned a lot this season in the Pac-12," the Utah coach said.

Changing angles, shifting scenes.

Life is a series of blindsides. You're rolling along, gaining ground. Then something takes your legs, nails you in the gut. So it is when you're the Utes. They arose Friday morning believing they were two wins from the Rose Bowl, depending on how much help they got from Cal and USC. By late afternoon it wasn't even a consideration.

Colorado Buffaloes running back Rodney Stewart (5) gets tackled by Utah Utes defensive lineman Tevita Finau (97) during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Colorado Buffaloes running back Rodney Stewart (5) gets tackled by Utah Utes defensive lineman Tevita Finau (97) during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"It's definitely a disappointment," said linebacker Chaz Walker. "We wanted to stir things up. It's rough to lose, but we'll bounce back."

Bounce-back talk is standard in post-game news conferences, but in this case, it's not hard to believe. This is a team that lost its first four conference games, only to be in consideration for the division championship until two seconds remained on Friday. Not in just any conference, either. The Pac-12, which is roughly a 10-story climb from life in the Mountain West.

Back then, a team could play poorly and bungle through. Now the Utes are finding no such luxury. Colorado's victory was its first road win since 2007.

You beat four teams in a row, and then you lose to a team you were favored to beat by three touchdowns.

"The line between winning and losing is very thin," Walker said. "If you don't come out with the passion every time, any team can beat any team."

Utah Utes quarterback Jon Hays (9) gets tackled by Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Josh Hartigan (17) during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Utah Utes quarterback Jon Hays (9) gets tackled by Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Josh Hartigan (17) during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

So when Coleman Petersen missed not one, but three field goals — including a 48-yarder with two seconds remaining — the Utes had to wonder. Last week he was the conference special teams player of the week, making three kicks, including the game-winner, against Washington State. This time he also missed from 42 and 26.

"A hero last week," Whittingham said. "If you're in the game long enough, you have games where the kicker wins the game for you, and games when — I'm not going to say he lost the game – but it didn't go so well today."

If you're Whittingham, and it's kickoff time on Friday, you think maybe the worst has passed. The Utes had previously lost seven key players to season-ending injuries. Then three others go down: guard Sam Brenner, defensive end Joe Kruger and star running back John White.

Bolts of unexpectedness.

Utah Utes wide receiver DeVonte Christopher (10) runs in as Utah Utes wide receiver Luke Matthews (11) catches a punt during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Utah Utes wide receiver DeVonte Christopher (10) runs in as Utah Utes wide receiver Luke Matthews (11) catches a punt during the first half of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Preliminary reports say there is no permanent injury to Brenner's neck, while Kruger's and White's ankles make them questionable for the bowl game. You figure maybe your team can cheat fate again when White goes down and Tauni Vakapuna quickly gets his own yardage up to 77. But it's late. You move across midfield just as the ball comes hiccuping out of Vakapuna's hands, into an opponent's arms, and another chance slips past.

"My fault. That was it," a choked-up Vakapuna said afterward. "We had an opportunity but I lost it."

But there's still a chance, right? This is the Utes. They've revived before. You get close enough for a tying field goal, two ticks left.

Wide right.

From Rose Bowl dreams, the Utes turn their eyes toward the Sun Bowl or maybe a return trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. After all of it — the slow start on the year, the injuries, the comeback, the sudden, screeching finish — they could wind up where they finished last year. New calling card, same address. They might even end up playing their old Mountain West opponent TCU.

Utah's Greg Bird stretches before the start of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Utah's Greg Bird stretches before the start of the Utah vs. Colorado football game at the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

They know they did some nice things this year, but were never special.

Changing angles, moving scenes.

Email: rock@desnews.com

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