SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first losing season since 2002 officially became a reality Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. A 34-24 setback to Arizona dropped the Utes to 4-7 overall with only a game at Colorado Friday left to be played.
"Got one to go. It's only for pride. It's a pride and character game. There is nothing else on the line," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "That should be enough every week. You shouldn't need a carrot in front of you to play hard, and compete and go out and do your best, which I believe our guys will do."
Calling it a season in November, however, is something the Utes haven't done since starting quarterback Travis Wilson was eight-years-old. They've gone bowling and finished with a winning record for nine straight campaigns. Having those streaks snapped is not sitting well with the Utes.
"It's tough to swallow. To not make it to a bowl game is pretty bizarre," said wide receiver DeVonte Christopher. "We've experienced a lot of winning in this program, with the Sugar Bowl and all. There was definitely a lot of weight on us as seniors. It's pretty disappointing."
Utah's second season in the Pac-12 has proven to be even more challenging than the first one. The Utes are just 6-11 in conference play since joining the league and have lost at least once to eight of the nine teams they've faced.
In becoming the latest addition to the list, Arizona overcame a 24-17 deficit in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats capped things off with 17 unanswered points down the stretch.
"Give Arizona credit," Whittingham said. "They made the plays."
Running back Ka'Deem Carey led the Wildcats with 204 yards rushing, highlighting an offense that racked up 480 yards and 27 first downs.
Utah's scheme also proved to be productive, netting 449 yards and 21 first downs. Quarterback Travis Wilson had a career night with 311 yards passing, including touchdown passes to Christopher and Jake Murphy. Running back John White ran for 112 yards.
Despite the numbers, Whittingham acknowledged the Utes didn't capitalize on some opportunities. They turned the ball over on downs four times and lost a fumble.
"We didn't do some of the things we need to do to win the game," Whittingham said while noting they took some chances. A fake field paid off with a 3-yard touchdown run by kicker Coleman Petersen, while other gambles obviously did not.
"It is what it is. That's football," Whittingham added. "You make some of those plays, you don't make some of them."
The imbalance against Arizona has Utah closing things out this week at Colorado.
"It's our last game together so guys are going to be playing hard," Christopher said.
Although the NCAA created a contingency plan in August that would allow 5-7 teams to play in a bowl game if there aren't enough eligible squads to fill slots, Utah doesn't meet the established criteria of having a top-5 Academic Progress Rate score. In fact, two other possible 5-7 teams rank higher than the Utes (33rd).
Any sort of variance in that regard may be a moot point, anyhow. As the season winds down, 13 teams are one win away from becoming bowl eligible. Six spots are still up for grabs and five may be claimed by teams with games against opponents with fewer victories over the next two weeks. Plus, Michigan State (5-6) can qualify with a win over Minnesota (6-5).
EXTRA POINTS: White and punter Sean Sellwood broke school records in the game. White set a new mark for career 100-yard games with 13. Sellwood had a 52-yard punt in the third quarter, giving him 51 career kicks of 50 yards or greater . . . Sophomore safety Eric Rowe finished with a career-high 16 tackles — the most by any Ute since Matt Martinez tallied 17 against BYU in 2010 . . . The announced attendance was 45,031, extending Utah's streak of consecutive sellouts at home to 18.
Contributing: Amy Donaldson
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DirkFacer
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company