Utah football: Utes positive about finish and future as 2011 season ends
Utah football • Victory over Georgia Tech creates optimism for next season.
Published: January 5, 2012 10:39AM
Updated: January 5, 2012 10:49AM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah coach Kyle Whittingham embraces running back John White, who was named the game's MVP. The University of Utah faces Georgia Tech, college football at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, December 31, 2011.

Well now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Utah’s first venture in the Pac-12 went from being a possible humiliating and humbling experience to being a story of triump over long odds, which appropriately ended in Saturday’s come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

The 30-27 overtime win over the Yellow Jackets (8-5) left the Utes with an 8-5 mark for the season.

The five losses mark the most the Utes have had since finishing 8-5 in 2006. But talk about a different perspective: That year the Utes were an inconsistent team trying to salvage coach Kyle Whittingham’s second year as head coach.

On Saturday, the Utes left the field for the last time in 2011 not only feeling they’d weathered a season dictated by injuries to key players, but also proving they weren’t going to be the BCS bust some predicted them to be.

Rallying to beat Georgia Tech not only gave the Utes something to feel good about heading into the offseason, but it also marked the Pac-12’s first bowl victory as the Utes succeeded where UCLA, Cal, Arizona State and Washington all failed.

It was a good way to end 2011 and a good jumping-off point for 2012, the Utes believe.

Losing their last regular-season game to Colorado and just missing out on reaching the Pac-12 title game as a result will always be a disappointment, Whittingham admitted.

But during the year and Saturday’s game, the Utes showed time and again they had the mental and physical ability to overcome challenging situations.

“I can’t say enough about this football team and the way they handled their business this year,” Whittingham said.

The Utes knew 2011 was going to be a challenging year as they took on a BCS schedule. But what they didn’t know is they’d have to overcome the loss of their starting quarterback and rework their offense midseason as a result.

What they found in that challenge was a running back who could carry the team and a defense that answered questions about its youth by bailing out the offense time and time again in wins.

All those obstacles will help the Utes going forward, receiver DeVonte Christopher said.

Offensively, the Utes lose senior starting linemen Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen, and fullback Shawn Asiata, but return the majority of their skill players, including running back John White.

White set a school record by rushing 1,519 yards on 318 carries in 2011 and capped his season with the game-winning touchdown Saturday.

“I didn’t know a back coming out of juco could be so good,” Christopher said. “But the way the season started, going 0-4 in conference and having to battle injuries here and there and things and still finishing strong, it is big for us, man, real big.”

There is still plenty of work ahead for the Utes. Whittingham must find an offensive coordinator to replace Norm Chow, and the Utes continue their recruiting efforts to bolster their offensive and defensive lines.

But at least now the Utes believe they have a better idea of what to expect in the Pac-12 and what it will take to win.

The offense could undergo some tweaks as it continues to evolve but like the defensive scheme, the groundwork is there for the Utes to be successful, Whittingham believes.

“Our goal is to always win the Pac-12 South,” Whittingham said. “That was our objective this year and we came up one game short, but that will always be our objective. We have some great players coming back, and we had a good season. There is a lot to be excited about.”

Utah’s 2011 football results

Date Opponent Result Score

Sept. 1 vs. Montana State W 27-10 Utes’ offense doesn’t have a great debut, with Whittingham calling it “abysmal”

Sept. 10 at USC L 23-14 A 41-yard field goal attempt by the Utes that could have sent the game into overtime is blocked

Sept. 17 at BYU W 54-10 Utes force seven turnovers in their most lopsided win in the rivalry in 89 years

Oct. 1 vs. Washington L 31-14 QB Jordan Wynn suffers a season-ending shoulder injury

Oct. 8 vs. Arizona State L 35-14 Utah turns the ball over on three straight possessions, leading to the blowout loss

Oct. 15 at Pittsburgh W 26-14 John White rushes 36 times for 171 yards, proving he has the durability to carry the offense

Oct. 22 at California L 34-10 Following the embarrassing loss, coach Kyle Whittingham holds team meeting with juniors and seniors

Oct. 29 vs. Oregon State W 27-8 A newly energized team scores its first Pac-12 win

Nov. 5 at Arizona W 34-21 The Utes use three takeaways to help score the road victory

Nov. 12 vs. UCLA W 31-6 The Bruins are denied a touchdown as the defense once again comes up big in a win

Nov. 19 at Washington State W 30-27 (OT) Mo Lee intercepts two passes and Coleman Petersen kicks the game-winner from 38 yards out

Nov. 25 vs. Colorado L 17-14 A win could have put the Utes in the Pac-12 championship game

Dec. 31 vs. Georgia Tech W 30-27 (OT) White sets a school record in rushing and scores the winning touchdown