More than two years have passed since Urban Meyer left for Florida and a national championship. In that time, the University of Utah football program has achieved success while reloading.
The Utes have won a pair of bowl games under head coach Kyle Whittingham extending their postseason streak to six consecutive victories.
Back-to-back winning seasons include an 8-5 mark in 2006, a one-win improvement from the previous campaign.
"I think there's some positives to take from the season, without a doubt. Are we satisfied and content with an 8-5 season? No. That's hardly the case. But we felt we finished strong," said Whittingham, who noted that the Utes did win four of their last five games. "It was a positive way to end this season and a very positive segue into next season."
Utah could have easily gone 5-for-5 at the end, Whittingham added, but failed to make plays when they needed to be made in a 33-31 loss to BYU.
The setback came on the final play of the game, well after time expired, when BYU quarterback John Beck threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open Johnny Harline.
Though disappointing, it wasn't the most difficult situation Utah faced last season. Nor was the 31-10 season-opening loss at UCLA, or the 36-3 drilling by nationally ranked Boise State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Utes' greatest difficulty was a five-day stretch in October, when they dropped Mountain West Conference road games at Wyoming (31-15) and New Mexico (34-31).
At 4-4 overall and 2-2 in league play, it left them at a crossroads of sorts.
Fortunately for the Utes, they took the right path responding with consecutive wins over UNLV (45-23), Colorado State (35-22) and Air Force (17-14) to become bowl eligible.
After coming up short against BYU the next week, Utah defeated Tulsa, 25-13, in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.
"The high point was probably winning the bowl game," Whittingham said. "And the way the coaches and players rallied up after we had that tough loss against New Mexico and won four of our last five games. That was a big positive, the way we overcame adversity after those back-to-back losses at midseason."
The bounce back allowed the Utes to post a fourth consecutive winning season.
Leading the charge was senior cornerback Eric Weddle. The consensus All-American contributed mightily in all three phases of the game offense, defense and special teams.
"We're going to miss him dearly," Whittingham said. "He's been the best player in this league for probably three years in a row in my opinion. He did so much for us."
Weddle intercepted seven passes in 2006 and was named MWC defensive player of the year for a second time. He was part of a defensive unit that Whittingham said did a nice job.
"I thought they played hard," he explained. "The one area, our pass coverage, was not as good as it has been in year's past. If there was an area of deficiency on defense it would probably be our pass coverage. Our pass efficiency rating (sixth in MWC) was nowhere near what we are used to it being."
The Utes did, however, rack up 17 interceptions and break up 37 other passes. Junior safety Steve Tate led the team with 102 tackles. Middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni was second with 92.
Defensive tackle Kelly Talavou joined Weddle on the all-conference first team. Jiannoni and defensive tackle Paul Soliai were second-teamers, while defensive end Martail Burnett, safety Casey Evans and Tate were named honorable mention.
Utah's offense didn't fare quite as well. Offensive lineman Tavo Tupola and wide receiver Brent Casteel were named to the first and second teams, respectively. Offensive linemen Jason Boone and Robert Conley joined wide receiver Derrek Richards as honorable mentions.
Statistically, the Utes didn't match what they accomplished offensively in 2005, when quarterback Brian Johnson ranked among the nation's leaders in total offense. Senior starter Brett Ratliff had an up-and-down season.
"We struggled in two or three games, and that really hurts your numbers," Whittingham said. "If you're going to have two or three games where you just play very poorly, then your numbers at the end of the season aren't going to be as good."
Utah's special teams had a good campaign. Sophomore kicker/punter Louie Sakoda was the MWC's co-special teams player of the year, and kick returner Brice McCain earned honorable-mention recognition.
"Lucky Louie Sakoda. We leaned on him heavily in the bowl game. He kept us in that game all the way up until we were able to find the end zone in the second half," Whittingham said. "We feel that we're in very good shape special teams-wise as far as the specialists are concerned."
The Utes are building depth as they enter Whittingham's third season at the helm."I think we've had two quality recruiting classes. I think our overall level, as far as athleticism, is continuing to get better and better," said defensive coordinator Gary Andersen, who anticipates another good recruiting class. "The program is continuing to go to bowl games and to win bowl games. The goal forever is to win a conference championship, and that's going to be the goal this year. I think we're definitely moving in the right direction."
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