SALT LAKE CITY — When asked how he planned to lift the spirits of his team, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham joked about having a seance or doing some things like that.
After four straight setbacks and the loss of their starting quarterback, though, there hasn't been a lot else to laugh about up on the hill — just a serious determination by the Utes to make the most of what’s left of a difficult season.
“You just have to keep swinging. We've been playing quality teams. The level of play in this conference is very high. From year one, to year two and three it's gotten better and better as a conference and I don't think anyone will dispute that,” Whittingham said as the Utes prepare for Saturday’s Pac-12 game at Washington State. “It's a challenge and we just got to get ready and come back. As bad as we feel right now and as the toughest stretch that it has been, we've got two games left and if we're somehow able to get two wins then we're in a bowl game potentially. That is the main objective right now, is to get those seniors to a bowl game.”
At 4-6 overall and 1-6 in Pac-12 play, the Utes have no margin of error when it comes to bowl eligibility. They need wins over Washington State this week and Colorado on Nov. 30 in order to do so.
Both the Cougars and Buffaloes are coming off victories last Saturday. Washington State topped Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., and Colorado defeated California in Boulder, Colo.
Utah, by comparison, hasn’t won a game since upsetting fifth-ranked Stanford 27-21 on Oct. 12. The Utes then suffered losses to Arizona (35-24), USC (19-3), Arizona State (20-19) and Oregon (44-21).
The four-game slide knocked them into a last-place tie with Colorado in the Pac-12 South and into the must-win scenario they now face.
Add in the Travis Wilson situation, which developed after the ASU game when a concussion evaluation revealed what appears to be a previous injury to an intracranial artery that will sideline the quarterback for at least a couple of months, and Utah faces a tough haul down the stretch.
Even so, tight end Jake Murphy said the Utes remain confident.
“Despite all the bad things that have happened so far, we still control our own destiny. We can make a bowl game,” Murphy noted. “We can turn out having a better season than last year, which would be huge considering all the things that we’ve gone through and how tough it’s been.”
Murphy, himself, is a rallying point. He returned from a broken wrist suffered Oct. 3 against UCLA to catch a touchdown pass last weekend in the Oregon game.
“There’s been a lot of things that haven’t really bounced our way or gone our way lately. I’m not saying that I’ll be some sort of a savior,” Murphy said. “But if I can just be a positive voice and kind of help people out then that’s what I’m going to try and do — just come in and keep reassuring everyone that everything is going to be OK and we’re going to battle through this. That’s our only choice really.”
Murphy added that whatever it takes will be done.
Although optimistic as well, Whittingham acknowledged that this season has proved to be quite a challenge. Besides the closes losses and Wilson’s diagnosis, the Utes dealt with the deaths of incoming freshman Gaius Vaenuku and former assistant coach Aaron Alford just prior to the season.
“It’s been a rough year in a lot of respects,” Whittingham said. “You’ve just got to move forward and take it as it comes.”
EXTRA POINTS: Utah’s game against Colorado on Nov. 30 will kick off at noon and be televised by the Pac-12 Networks. ... The Utes lead the nation with 36 sacks and 3.6 sacks per game. ... Senior cornerback Keith McGill is the Pac-12 co-leader in pass breakups with 10. Other individual conference leaders include junior receiver Dres Anderson (19.0 yards per reception), sophomore punter Tom Hackett (43.7 yards per punt) and senior defensive end Trevor Reilly (three fumble recoveries).