SALT LAKE CITY — Those intoxicating days of playing in New Year’s bowls are long gone. The 2017 Utes?
They're just happy to be here.
Kind of like things were 25 years ago.
But just like the early 1990s, they still like the feeling of December football.
The Utes finally qualified for a bowl game by obliterating Colorado 34-13 on Saturday. Talk about slipping in through the exit door. Playing in a fringe bowl leads to no place special, but it’s always better to be bowling than bawling.
So an eensy-weensy postseason game is coming. Twenty-five years ago, the Utes were thrilled just to hear their name called. After losing six of their previous seven games, they’ll take an invitation to anything except a memorial service.
It might have been senior night for 22 Utes, but Zack Moss, a sophomore, disagreed. It was sophomore night in his mind. He had 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns — in the first half.
But it wasn’t only the yards he delivered, but the punishment. He ran over a Colorado safety on a 15-yard touchdown to begin, then abused a linebacker on a 2-yard score. He made Ralphie, the ferocious Colorado Buffalo mascot — who didn’t make the trip — seem tame.
Meanwhile, Troy Williams, playing for injured quarterback Tyler Huntley, had a senior night for the yearbook. He put Utah far ahead by throwing a pillow-soft pass for 40 yards to Raelon Singleton, and taking a quarterback draw the last 8 yards, then added a 9-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left in the half for a 28-0 lead.
At one point late in the half, Colorado was facing third-and-41 on its own 13, which is all you need to know. The Utes wore helmets designed by, oh, Salvador Dali. Even that decision worked.
Then they went home and waited for a final score, which allowed Colorado to gain momentum. It closed the gap to 31-13 and got as far as the Utah 14 before Bradlee Anae sacked the quarterback and Cody Barton recovered with 11:13 remaining.
The trouble was averted.
In 1992, after almost three decades of nothingness, Utah finally got an invitation to the Copper Bowl, but lost. Same thing the next year in the Freedom Bowl. But finally in 1994, the long dry spell was over thanks to a win over Arizona. That — and an explosion of new bowls — triggered a streak of postseason appearances that has rarely been interrupted.
Nowadays, though, getting to bowls is daunting for the Utes. That’s because their regular season is usually tougher than their postseason. Indiana, Colorado State, BYU and Georgia Tech have been their bowl opponents since they joined the Pac-12. But winning an October game against Arizona State, USC or Oregon is more difficult.
They get through the regular season so they can play a “rest game.”
While the Buffaloes aren’t world-beaters, until now they’ve proven quarrelsome late in the season when Utah’s hopes have been in the balance. It didn’t help that the Utes were without their starting quarterback. Or maybe it did. Williams was a star, by air and by land.
Beating Colorado means that for a fourth straight season the Utes qualify for the postseason. With 39 bowl games this year, 60 percent of FBS teams will play late. Still, getting there is the minimum for self-respecting programs.
The rest should be easy. It’s true Kyle Whittingham’s teams always find a way to take themselves out of contention for big bowls, since joining the Pac-12, but get them in any bowl game and they’re golden. Whittingham’s 10-1 postseason record is the best in college football history. That’s nice, but lately the list of bowl invitations hasn't exactly been lead SportsCenter news: Poinsettia, Las Vegas, Foster Farms. Not a cash cow in the bunch. If there was a notable game since the 2005 Sugar Bowl, it was the 2011 Sun Bowl.
Utah is headed for its 13th bowl game in 15 years.
Everybody knows the Utes are tough. But as Whittingham said during a four-game skid in October, his team lacked “mojo, swag, confidence, edge, whatever.”
Not to mention bluster, stick-to-it-iveness, attitude, resolve, self-assurance, poise and certitude.
Then came Saturday.
They struck like a cloudburst.
So why should a minor bowl game matter?
Because missing bowls is bad for business and harmful to a program’s progress.
Utah is in a conference in which every game — OK, nearly every game — is a siege. The Utes might be destined to a lifetime of tough-to-beat-but-beatable status. But again this year they’ll be in someone’s minor bowl. They can live with that. Most people look better in low lighting. Utah in 2017 was supposed to contend for the South Division championship, but didn’t.
Still, connecting to the past isn’t a bad thing.