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Commentary: Utah Utes breaking from Whittingham tradition with poor play in season's second half

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 3:59 a.m. MDT

Utah Utes defensive tackle Sam Tevi (32) and the Utes warm up prior to the Arizona State PAC 12 game in Salt Lake City  Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive tackle Sam Tevi (32) and the Utes warm up prior to the Arizona State PAC 12 game in Salt Lake City Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Last month, Prince George was christened at The Chapel Royal, rather than in the music room at Buckingham Palace where previous generations of royal heirs have been baptized.

This Thanksgiving, Macy’s will break a 155-year tradition of staying closed on Turkey Day by opening at 8 p.m.

Now, a team led by Kyle Whittingham is performing awfully in the second half of the season.

For all the breaks from tradition, the play of the Utah football team ranks among the other detractors. The Utes have fared poorly in the last three games — all losses — to start the second half of the 2013 campaign.

That’s not normal for a Whittingham-guided team.

History is not repeating itself this fall, an especially surprising development given that this year’s version of the Utes for the season's first half was one of the best Whittingham has had. Utah has also held true to tradition even after joining the mighty Pac-12. For all the struggles, perhaps one person is most to blame.

Utah Utes running back Bubba Poole (34) is tackled by Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Carl Bradford (52)   in Salt Lake City  Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.  Arizona State won 20-19. (Andrew J. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes running back Bubba Poole (34) is tackled by Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Carl Bradford (52) in Salt Lake City Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. Arizona State won 20-19. (Andrew J. Allred, Deseret News)

Overall, teams under Whittingham, a ninth-year head coach, have been splendid to conclude their seasons. The 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011 campaigns in particular saw resolute wins and strong finishes. In 2005, Utah went 4-1 after starting 3-4. In 2006, it went 4-1 after starting 4-4. In 2007, 8-1 after 1-3. In 2011, 5-1 after 3-4. Even in the bowl-less season last fall, Utah won three of its last five games after losing four in a row and starting 2-5.

Combined, that’s a 24-6 record in season-ending games compared to 13-20 in its preceding contests. Of course, the Utes finished strongly in the 2008 season, when they went undefeated. Even that fall, Utah throttled San Diego State and BYU by a combined 73 points — the 14th-ranked Cougars lost by 24 — before owning Alabama by two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl.

Game-by-game outlook and first-half play this season make the trend-breaker even odder. This is the Utah team that started 4-2 after knocking off fifth-ranked Stanford. That start is at least the fourth-best of any team with Whittingham as head coach, according to both strength of schedule and level of dominance.

Utah Utes defensive back Keith McGill (1) defends Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Jaelen Strong (21)  in Salt Lake City  Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.  Arizona State won 20-19. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive back Keith McGill (1) defends Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Jaelen Strong (21) in Salt Lake City Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. Arizona State won 20-19. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The only clubs that may have been better were in 2008 (6-0), 2009 (5-1) and 2010 (6-0). Recall the level of competition, however, between Mountain West and Pac-12 conference matchups.

In 2008, the Utes faced UNLV and Air Force. The Rebels were 1-0 when facing the Utes but finished 5-7. The Falcons were 3-0 against Utah but finished 8-5. The Utes played Wyoming in the seventh game; the Cowboys were 2-4 then and finished 4-8.

In 2009, Utah beat Colorado State (3-2, later 3-9) and UNLV (2-4, later 5-7). 2010 was particularly easy: Utah faced UNLV (0-1, 2-11), New Mexico (0-2, 1-11) and Wyoming (2-4, 3-9). Colorado State (2-5, 3-9) followed two weeks before TCU destroyed the Utes by 40 with the ESPN GameDay crew watching.

The Utes’ conference opponents in the first half of this season were Oregon State (6-3) and UCLA (7-2) before Stanford (8-1), which has to beat No. 2 Oregon and rise back to fifth nationally. It may yet reach the national championship.

Among the first six games of the 2008 undefeated season, three contests were decided by a combined 12 points. The 2010 campaign marked the only other undefeated first half and the only series of games to have statistically significant higher margins of victory (5-plus percent) over teams of comparable ability.

Despite the easier first-half schedules for past Utah teams compared to this year’s Utes, Pac-12 play had little to do with its second-half turnarounds the past two seasons. Also, it’s not like Utah has competed much of the past three weeks, largely due to the atrocious play of Travis Wilson.

In 2011 and 2012, the Utes still went a combined 8-3 after going 5-9 in preceding games. In recent weeks, however, they never led their game against the Arizona Wildcats, nor for all but 10 minutes against the USC Trojans.

No player or unit has epitomized the dramatic about-face than Wilson. In the season’s first half, he was an All Pac-12 player. Since, he has been atrocious, the worst starting signal-caller in the league. He went 3-9 against Arizona and 5-14 at USC for passer ratings of 39.6 and 37.7, respectively. Four of his 15 incompletions were interceptions. Then he went 6-21 with two fourth-quarter picks at home against Arizona State. That happened with a self-proclaimed completely healthy hand.

Will Utah rediscover tradition by the end of the month?

Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for Utah Policy Daily and Utah State University alum. The co-founder of magazine AggieBluePrint.com, he has interned for the Deseret News and other publications; rhett.wilkinson@yahoo.com | Twitter: @wilklogan

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