SALT LAKE CITY —
Remember a few years ago when Kyle Whittingham said he didn't much care for Las Vegas?
What he wouldn't give for a trip down Fremont Street now.
Memphis or El Paso? Both are Shangri-la in hindsight. Fort Worth, San Diego, San Francisco – he'd jump at any of them.
New Orleans and Tempe?
A dream within a dream.
Even a proposed trip to the Military or Independence bowls are out of reach for him these days.
The Utes' bowl streak has ended at nine.
The end came Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium as Utah fell 34-24 to Arizona. It was abrupt, but at least it ended the wondering. This was no bowl team, from the slightly uninspired season-opener against Northern Colorado, to a 0-4 start in the Pac-12, to the specter of post-season on the couch.
Speaking of couches, the Utes could probably use some time in a counselor's office right now. If you ask them, it was mostly in their heads. With one game left, this is all they have to play for: revenge and a touch of dignity. Which means they're playing for nothing terribly important.
A team can get all that by just winning.
Last year the Utes pulled off an unexpected comeback, winning four of their final five regular-season games to earn a Sun Bowl berth. This year, nothing cooking. The Saturday loss dropped them to 4-7 on the year and excluded them from bowl contention for the first time since 2002.
Bye-bye to bowl parades and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.
This year they'll be home watching from afar.
For Ute players and fans, it's a new world. Utah has been attending bowl games yearly since all of them were kids. It had become an expected thing, as regular as Twinkies in the lunchbox. Wait. Never mind.
Now, just like the 1970s and '80s, their final game is their bowl game.
Two years into their Pac-12 life, the Utes have discovered some things. One is that daily life is harder, due to the talent in their new league. Some say Utah is far out of its talent level in the Pac-12. It certainly looked that way this year against USC and Arizona State. At the same time, it's not like the Utes aren't putting players in the pros; at season's start they had two dozen in NFL uniforms.
While the Utes don't have the talent to often beat Oregon or USC, the real issue is depth.
As they say in the cop shows, "We're gonna need backup here!"
They need an A team and an A-1 team, not a B team.
That much has been obvious this season. They switched around on quarterbacks. Their running backs took turns on the injured list. Their offensive line was iffy from the start. And while freshman quarterback Travis Wilson will be good, he's still unseasoned.
They didn't need a few good men, they needed an army of them.
When players like Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey rush for 204 yards, it's obvious the Utes could use more of the talent they already have.
And a little of what they don't.
The teams on Saturday appeared to have decided beforehand it would be a stare-down, or more accurately, a shootout. Both gambled on fourth down on their first possession and failed. Shortly after, the scoring commenced. Among the highlights: a fake field goal that Coleman Petersen took in for Utah's first score.
Not that the game was clean. Far from it. The first half included four fumbles, three of them lost by one team or the other.
Maybe it was the intermittent rain. Probably it was not protecting the ball.
A big Utah break came when Arizona quarterback Matt Scott fumbled at the Utah seven with 33 seconds left in the first half. He must have felt terrible. Almost as bad as he did when TV cameras caught him hurling — and we don't mean passing — between plays.
In fairness, it was a stomach-churning kind of night for both teams.
Give the Utes' credit, they worked like they were fighting for the Rose Bowl. But a failed fake punt led to Arizona scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 11:07 remaining.
A fourth down try, a fake punt, a reverse, a fake field goal. The Utes used a lot of their playbook.
No reason at this point to save anything.
As they left the field, they also left a strong impression: That most games they're competitive enough. They're reasonably talented, too. Now they need to get more of it.