SALT LAKE CITY — There are teams all over the country, pro and college, that carry the slogan “We are (fill in the blank)!”
As for the Utes, they aren’t quite sure who or what they are.
At the moment they’re looking like cousins to Arizona, a conference member that in 35 years has never been to the Rose Bowl. In that case, the Utes can look for their first visit sometime around 2050. Thursday’s 34-27 loss to No. 12 UCLA made them 0-for-beginnings in the Pac-12. After back-to-back 0-4 starts in their first two years, they’re 0-2 this year.
So they’re not world-beaters. Not necessarily a bowl threat.
But they’re growing into this deal. Just don’t ask them to prove it on the scoreboard.
Quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions, the final one sealing the deal with 16 seconds to go at the UCLA 23.
Yet weirdly enough, he didn’t leave a bad impression. Despite the hailstorm interceptions, the brightest spot for the Utes might be that they no longer have to worry who has the keys to the car. Those years of quarterback angst are over. Wilson’s stats weren’t terrific (22-43, 288 yards) but they were born of determination and confidence.
He finished the game firing away. He tossed a fourth-down completion to Dres Anderson with a minute to go. A pass to Jake Murphy on Utah’s next-to-last play was caught barely out of bounds.
Better to sink with the oars still rowing.
What promised to be a top-shelf battle of sophomore quarterbacks was all that in the first quarter. Both Utah’s Wilson and UCLA’s Brett Hundley took their teams to a touchdown on their first possessions. Wilson showed no trepidation at all to throw into traffic — and for the most part it worked. His slight slipups in the first half became a problem in the second, as he threw a pick on the first possession. The Bruins were forced to punt, but Wilson was intercepted again on a tipped pass.
As the third quarter waned, another Wilson pass went off the hands of Geoff Norwood and into the hands of UCLA’s Eric Kendricks for Wilson’s third pick of the game.
Still, he kept slinging.
It was hard to criticize. It’s true Wilson took some risky attempts. But he has been doing things that have been in short supply in recent years — taking the game at the opponents.
Even after they fell behind in the mid-fourth quarter, Wilson was throwing over the middle, challenging the Bruins.
Somehow you have to figure that he will soon start winning in the conference, no matter who the competition.
That’s just plain nasty.
If there were reason for optimism in the Ute camp beforehand, it was that Utah hadn’t been dominated by the Bruins. Utah trailed the series 2-9, but the wins came in 2007 and 2011, both under Kyle Whittingham. Last season the Utes lost by a touchdown in Los Angeles.
That was Wilson’s first start.
Since then, he has had some nice days of his own, including mention as the conference Player of the Week after a win over BYU.
Those facts weren’t wasted on Bruins coach Jim Mora, who told the L.A. Times this week, “We’re entering the jungle. You can’t have a slip-up.”
If the anticipation for UCLA seemed slightly overcooked, remember the Bruins have spent this year as the leader in Los Angeles. Considering USC’s woes this year — firing its coach — this is a good time for the Bruins to move. Their 2013 recruiting class was rated ahead of USC’s. They are now 4-0, Utah 3-2.
But Mora was having none of it, earlier this week.
“The minute you think, ‘We got it,’ you’re done,” Mora told the Times.
It nearly happened when the Utes executed an onside kick after closing the deficit to a touchdown with 2:09 remaining.
With three wins, the Utes are still unclear on their bowl chances. Beating Washington State and Colorado, plus a win against downtrodden USC could still get them there. A win on Thursday would have meant real progress against a nationally ranked opponent.
As it turned out, they at least have someone on which to pin their hopes.
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