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Brad Rock: How the Utes can go to a bowl and save Whittingham

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 12:35 a.m. MDT

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham during a University of Utah football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014,  in Salt Lake City.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham during a University of Utah football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Considering their schedule, and their recent history, it’s easy to surmise the Utes will never make it safely through to the bowl season. They’ll be lucky to make it through to next Thursday.

They’ve lost Trevor Reilly, their all-conference linebacker, and cornerback Keith McGill to the NFL. Gone too are pro prospects Jake Murphy and Tenny Palepoi. But more than that, as Kyle Whittingham approaches his 10th season as head coach, they’ve lost their mojo.

The Utes’ gas tank was as empty as downtown Detroit, at the end of last season. Speaking of Detroit, Utah will be going there, en route to its Sept. 20 game at Michigan. Last time the Utes were there, things went nicely in a 25-23 win in 2008. It was the first of 13 victories that season.

This Michigan team, though, will be a problem for Utah. The Wolverines are ranked No. 17 in USA Today’s preseason football poll.

So as the Utes open training camp on Monday, the question is which opponent actually will they beat, other than Idaho State? Will it be Washington State? Not necessarily. The Cougars view Utah the same way the Utes view WSU: It’s a team they can handle.

What about Arizona? Don’t bet the inheritance on it. The Utes have lost two straight years to the Wildcats. Some are saying Arizona is the team most likely to surprise the experts.

Colorado is another beatable team, but it’s a road game for Utah, which has won just three away games since joining the Pac-12: WSU, Arizona and Colorado.

So suppose the Utes do beat Colorado this year, what does that give them for the season? Three wins, if you count ISU and Fresno State (though FSU is picked to win its division in the Mountain West). Add WSU and Arizona, in a best-case scenario, and that’s a five-win season, same as last year.

In that case, Whittingham’s job will be in peril. Athletics director Chris Hill has steadfastly maintained that he expects his football and men’s basketball teams to be top-25 programs, but Utah football hasn’t been ranked since 2010.

The Utes do have some bright spots, including a pair of quality wide-outs in Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott, the latter having spent last year sidelined with an injury. They also have back their starting quarterback, Travis Wilson, leading rusher Bubba Poole, senior tight end Westlee Tonga, defensive end Nate Orchard and starting safeties Brian Blechen and Eric Rowe. They also have promising newcomer Devontae Booker, a running back.

The team will need every one of them to be safe. A five-win season would probably mean a three-win conference season and a third consecutive non-bowl year. Injuries were a big part of the Utes’ ruination last year, but realistically, how do they win more than five games in 2014?

The simple answers: Claim the close ones and stay off the operating table.

That’s not to say Oregon needs to hide and Stanford should dial 911. It only means Utah could have won several more games last year, finishing 7-5 or even 8-4, rather than 5-7. Instead, the Utes spent the holidays home alone, thanks to failures in the fourth quarter.

Last season, Oregon State backed them into a corner — literally — behind the passing of Sean Mannion, who beat them in overtime. Utah lost by just a touchdown to UCLA on a day when Travis Wilson threw six interceptions.

If he'd thrown five, the Utes likely win.

Against Arizona State, they gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lose, thanks largely to 80 yards in penalties. D’oh! They had four conference losses by a combined 22 points.

The Utes were as snake-bitten as Cleopatra.

As for keeping healthy, last year they had trouble finding bodies, some games. Scott was out for the season in the first game, Murphy was in and out all year, and Blechen never played a down, all due to injuries. Wilson had an injured hand and, it turned out later, a brain injury from previous seasons.

Those are only the headliners.

In 2014 injury news, linebackers Jacoby Hale (knee) and Gionni Paul (foot) went down in the spring, which will carry over into part of this season.

Other than good conditioning, there’s no way to prevent injuries. On one hand, the fact they had so many health issues last year could signal it won’t happen again. But if it does, the Utes will not only be toast, they’ll probably be looking for a new coach. You might call that insult upon injury.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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