The goal right now is to make sure these seniors get the opportunity to play in a bowl game this year. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY - It is not the season that anyone on the Utah staff — or roster — expected.
Once thought to be contenders for the Pac-12 South title, now the Utes are fighting for a fitting end for their senior class.
“The goal right now is to make sure these seniors get the opportunity to play in a bowl game this year,” Whittingham said. “They have done so much for our program. They have won over 30 games in the last three and a half years and have just been an instrumental part of our success. They deserve it, and they can’t do it by themselves. The underclassmen have to step up and make sure it happens.”
The Utes need to win two of their four remaining games to become bowl eligible for the fourth straight year.
It’s been nearly a decade since redshirt sophomore safety Chase Hansen has experienced four straight losses — in any sport. He said some of the team’s struggle to regain the confidence they had early in the season is in the shifting possibilities of this season.
“It’s a sucky feeling to kind of downgrade your goals,” he said. “To kind of say, ‘Oh yeah, we didn’t achieve that, so what’s the point?’ The point is to win regardless, week to week, and I don’t know, I guess that’s a huge part of it. It’s frustrating to think, ‘You know we’re not going to reach here, so we gotta shoot for here.’ And it’s maybe less of a motivation.”
A number of issues have frustrated the Utes from injuries to back-to-back razor-thin losses to small mistakes that snowball. Hansen said injuries have been particularly frustrating for him, and that’s where his focus is as he and the underclassmen try to salvage the season for the seniors.
“I’m just trying to stay healthy,” he said. “And, when I am healthy, I’m trying to bring a good vibe to practice. I’m trying to do my job out there on the field, and I am trying to be verbal. A lot of times people shut down when stuff like this happens. They stop talking and stop communicating.”
Senior defensive end Kylie Fitts is one of those hoping the team can turn the season around so he can end his collegiate career at a bowl game.
“It’s very important,” he said. “I want the extra game. That’s more time spent with this team, that honestly means lot to me. This is my family. We’re going to be fighting hard these next few weeks.”
Both UCLA and Utah have 4-4 records, although the Bruins have two Pac-12 wins, while the Utes have just one.
Utah has a history of success in bowl games, especially under Whittingham. Since he took over as head coach 13 years ago, they’ve played in 11 bowl games, and he has the best win percentage in NCAA history at 10-1.
SILVER LININGS: While the Utes' run game and run defense are struggling, there are some aspects of their play that are worth noting.
The Utes still lead the nation in field goals made with 19.
Utah also leads the nation in punt return defense and is second in net punting with Mitch Wishnowsky averaging 44.3 yards per punt.
Utah is tied for second in the Pac-12 and tied for 10th in the nation in fumble recoveries (10), and ranks third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense (109.7). Despite the Utes' struggles stopping ground attacks recently, they still rank third in total defense in the conference.
BLACKOUT: Friday’s game is the 10th annual blackout game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It will be the second time the Utes have hosted the game, in which players wear all black and fans are encouraged to do so, when UCLA was the opponent.
Black has been good luck for the Utes, as they have a 7-2 record in the blackout game.