SALT LAKE CITY — Rice-Eccles Stadium is bursting at the seams but fraying at the fringes. That goes for both the stadium and its team. Neither is feared anymore by the opposition.
Remember the days when nobody but the Utes left the place happy? Those times seemed far away on Saturday. By early fourth quarter, everybody was gone. Why stick around? The Utes trailed by two touchdowns and their offense, as per tradition, had sabotaged itself.
Utah gave it a respectable try, losing 33-25. The Utes still had a chance on a deep pass at the final horn, but it was picked off. That saying about two steps forward and one step back? Utah is the opposite. Seven turnovers will do that, as will 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
So the bowl eligibility question will have to wait, possibly until next year. The 5-5 Utes have a road game at Washington and a home game against Colorado remaining. Bank on things going down to the final game.
But don’t bank on the Utes.
Of four conference home games this year, they have one win. When it comes to preventing invaders, they’ve become the Poland of the conference.
Almost anyone can overrun it.
Hoping to capitalize on the timing, athletics director Chris Hill staged an informal press briefing before the game. Saturday was the stadium’s 50th consecutive sellout.
There might not be many more, if this keeps up.
The reason for the presser was to update the public on plans to expand the stadium. Hill noted the decaying state of the south end zone and said a remake is certain, likely by the year 2021.
“It’s falling apart in the end zone, there. Let’s be honest,” Hill said.
OK, let’s be honest.
So are the Utes.
They did improve by scoring three touchdowns, but to beat WSU they needed more.
At a time when live attendance at games is dwindling nationwide, schools have to be cautious. As Hill put it, perception and reality aren’t always the same.
“There’s kind of a perception that really isn’t there anymore,” he said. Massive stadiums can never sell nosebleed tickets for enough money to make up the cost.
At the same time, Hill said Rice-Eccles will be closed into an oval. Current locker rooms are so dated that recruits are steered away. The spaces are dim and depressing — a little bit like the season.
The school is sending out a questionnaire to 100,000 recipients to get input on what the renovations should entail. Talking to colleagues around the country who had renovated their stadiums, Hill says he was told, “There are things put in — that I never thought we’d put in — that have been very successful, and things I thought should be in there, we didn’t have any demand for.”
How about putting in an offense?
Minus injured receiver Darren Carrington, the Utes gained just 367 yards, thanks largely to their own ham-handedness. They fumbled four times, losing three, and added four interceptions.
Hill said he has watched numerous college games this year to see how other schools have designed their end zone areas. Utah’s will almost certainly have luxury suites, but other amenities such as dining — and even park-like areas — have been done at other places. He didn’t specify how many seats will be added, but indicated a capacity of 50,000 is a general figure.
“Let’s see what the market is interested in,” Hill said.
A better-than .500 team, for sure.
Meanwhile, the team is searching for its own sweet spot, i.e. a bowl game.
Considering Washington State makes a living off a lights-out passing game, the Utes could have done worse. They held the Cougars to 338 yards. But on consecutive first-quarter drives, the Utes gave up the ball on two fumbles and an interception. Serious damage was done via a single WSU player, who in the first half had three sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble. His name is Hercules Mata’afa.
You might say he had the strength of 10.
Soon the stampede to the parking lot was on.
Utah’s best hope now is a minor bowl, such as the Cactus or Las Vegas. Those are glorified regular-season games. Should a minor bowl game matter? Yes, when 60 percent of teams make the postseason.
Having lost five of their last six, a renovation project is exactly what they need.