EUGENE, Ore. — That Las Vegas Bowl plan is crapping out. The prospect of attending the mini-Fiesta Bowl, aka the Cactus Bowl, is dimming. Even the Birmingham Bowl — USA Today’s projected destination for the Utes earlier this past week — is getting fuzzy.
What started as a promising season slid into a deadly October as the Utes lost all four games, culminating in Saturday’s 41-20 loss to Oregon. Stanford and USC — games the Utes were expected to lose — nearly produced wins. Meanwhile, Arizona State and Oregon were supposed to be winnable games. Instead, the Utes lost each by three touchdowns.
Utah is alone at the bottom of the Pac-12 South.
“Miserable,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Miserable month. I guess it was 0-for-October.”
Utah is 1-4 in conference play, 4-4 overall. It needs to win two of the next four games to become bowl eligible. A postseason bid was a foregone conclusion when October began. Now just reaching the postseason is a crusade.
“The goal now is to get to a bowl game,” Whittingham said. “Four (games) left — do the math.”
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that any team without a run game on both sides of the ball belongs on the couch. The last-place Utes have four chances to win two games, if they want to play in a bowl. Two of the games — UCLA and Colorado — are winnable, especially with UCLA's quarterback injured. But Washington and Washington State are doubtful.
Time to dredge the river bottoms for coins.
“Right now,” Whittingham said, “we might have a little bit of a lack of confidence.”
Not to mention a little bit of a lack of clues.
Thanks to previous nosediving by both Utah and Oregon, Saturday’s game produced only modest anticipation. Both teams arrived on three game losing streaks.
Still, you have to love this series. It has a fine sense of the absurd. In 2015, the Utes pulled off a trick punt return that went for a touchdown. Britain Covey should have won a daytime Emmy for pretending he had the ball. A year earlier, Utah’s Kaelin Clay dropped the ball just before crossing the goal line, resulting in a 99-yard Oregon return.
Unusual plays have become the usual plays.
While the score wasn’t close, Saturday’s game had just enough quirks to qualify for a Utah-Oregon affair. Darren Carrington II caught a pass in the first quarter but had it stripped for a 47-yard touchdown return. Oregon’s Charles Nelson was inches from being hauled down on a reverse, but put up a high, wobbly pass that ended in the arms of tight end Jacob Breeland for a 27-13 lead.
But the night’s strangest play was in the early third quarter when Tyler Huntley’s pass from the Oregon 2-yard line was batted in the air and caught by offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, who was lying on his back in the end zone.
“Yeah, that’s how it works,” offensive coordinator Troy Taylor jokingly noted. “Heck of a catch.”
But overall, the Utes had zero magic to their game.
Now would be a good time to go Siegfried and Roy.
Despite gaining a decent 384 total yards, the Utes generated just two touchdowns — one on the batted pass. Utah’s fancy new offense has been more timid than expected. In terms of final results, it doesn’t look a lot different than the one that has inhabited Rice-Eccles for the last few years.
Visiting the end zone is only a concept.
Both teams are out of title contention, but bowl-worthiness is another deal. From here on it’s positioning for the postseason. The Utes would be happy to qualify for either the Las Vegas or Cactus bowls. They’re not cocky. Or maybe they are. After Carrington had the ball stripped for a touchdown, he came back with a diving catch for 46 yards, followed by a strut-step.
That went over in Oregon like a nuclear plant.
But humility is coming on fast. The Utes are looking for any opponent they can beat, and any bowl they can wrangle.