SALT LAKE CITY — If the Utes are feeling disrespected as they await Thursday's game with Southern California, they couldn't be blamed. To use a Hollywood term, they're facing a box-office biggie. Utah is out-manned at almost every position. The Trojans have a Heisman-worthy quarterback and a dashing white horse for a mascot, too.
Meanwhile, the Utes have been caught in a downdraft after losing to Arizona State. It appears they have little chance to upset the Trojans. But wait.
When did that ever faze them?
They took last year's game in Los Angeles down to the final play. Furthermore, the game that helped launch them into a different zip code was actually against the Trojans, long ago. In 2001, the teams were paired in the Las Vegas Bowl. Utah was a considerable underdog. Nobody was giving them a chance, so what did they do?
They beat the Trojans 10-6.
Thursday's contest isn't a bowl game and there's no Pete Carroll at USC or Ron McBride at Utah. Still, it looks familiar.
How could Utah win on Thursday against favored USC?
By making it unspeakably ugly, of course.
Last thing they want is to get in a beauty contest with anyone from L.A.
"Some people complained that it wasn't pretty enough," McBride says, remembering that groundbreaking bowl win in 2001. "But it was a classic game, the kind of game I like. If it had been raining, it would have been perfect."
The thing he remembers about 2001 is that the Utes dominated the lines. He claims that happened because the Trojans had gone Hollywood about the whole deal. A slower-than-expected start on the season had derailed Rose Bowl hopes, and they didn't seem terribly invested in a Christmas Day game in Las Vegas.
Still, that didn't stop them from acting superior.
"They thought they were really something, because they were real condescending in all the things we did together, like we were just chumps from Utah," McBride says.
The thing McBride says ignited the Utes was the traditional bowl week party in downtown Las Vegas, which both teams attended. When the activities commenced on the dais, USC players "started trying to intimidate our guys. But we had some tough guys."
Next thing he knew, it was threatening to become a brawl.
"It was pretty scary for awhile," McBride says. "I remember that whole stage was rocking."
It's not as though the Utes were a terrific team that year. Though they finished 8-4, they lost their final two regular season games, to BYU and Air Force, and had a meager 4-3 mark in the Mountain West. Behind future Heisman quarterback Carson Palmer, USC had won its season opener against San Jose State, but lost five of the next six. It won its final four regular-season games and outscored the last two opponents 82-14.
McBride says administrators at Utah didn't want the Utes to play on Christmas, but instead "wanted to go play North Texas or somebody in some bowl down there. I said no way. I wanted to play the best team we could play against."
Utah held USC to just one rushing yard and 151 total yards. Whenever the Utes saw they were stacked up against All-America safety Troy Polamalu, they audibled away.
They sacked Palmer five times and had nine tackles for loss.
"It was a smash-mouth football game, a tough football game. I loved it," McBride says.
Now that he is currently a spokesman for a barbecue restaurant, he could even call it a pig of a game.
Utah had won bowl games before, but never against such a prestigious opponent. The outcome even launched an idea: Maybe the Utes could win such games on a regular basis.
The next year Utah beat Indiana and BYU and nearly upset Arizona and Michigan. But a 5-6 record doomed McBride. Still, he had done the program a huge favor.
Not until that fateful Las Vegas Bowl did Utah know how glamorous ugly can be.