In the end, Kyle Whittingham was partly right.
His Utah football team is good enough to come reasonably close to No. 8 Oregon State — but that’s all.
In Saturday’s night’s 21-7 loss at Reser Stadium, the Utes were competitive. But a series of offensive mistakes was too much for them to overcome in a fourth straight defeat to begin their Pac-12 schedule.
Whether the observation stemmed from his genuine confidence in the Utes or his general disgust with public opinion, Whittingham said in the buildup to Saturday’s game that success for his team was “closer than a lot of people think.”
That statement was ripe for derision when the Utes (2-5) fell behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, until they battled back. Ultimately, all that recovery did was keep the outcome in some doubt until the middle of the fourth quarter.
The biggest issue of the night was whether Utah’s offense would show substantial improvement, justifying the switch to quarterback Travis Wilson and fulfilling the commitment to John White’s running. The results remained unsatisfying.
The offense showed occasional signs of life against a good OSU defense. Any incremental progress, however, was balanced by the kind of problems that come with playing a freshman quarterback in the Pac-12.
The offense’s errors basically wasted a solid defensive effort. The Utes outgained OSU (307 yards to 226) by barely exceeding their season average. Yet the offense deserves to be charged with 14 points, while scoring only seven points itself for the second game in a row with Wilson at the controls.
An interception of a Wilson pass and his fumble while being sacked basically handed the Beavers a pair of touchdowns in the first half. Another fumble at the other end of the field in the third quarter cost Utah at least three points — all while OSU was building and maintaining a modest 14-7 lead.
Once they fell behind 21-7, the Utes drove inside the OSU 20, only to have the Beavers sack Wilson on a fourth-down play. Wilson was intercepted on Utah’s last offensive play with 1:18 remaining.
It was that kind of night for Wilson, who did some things well in his second start, but delivered only one touchdown.
Wilson responded to his early mistakes with an 88-yard TD drive midway through the second quarter, topped by his 18-yard pass to tight end Jake Murphy.
Yet the coaching staff did not place much faith in him during Utah’s final drive of the half, allowing the clock to run down before White was stuffed on a third-and-2 play and then the Utes punted from near midfield.
Wilson opened Utah’s initial series with a 35-yard pass to Luke Matthews, but the offense did little of consequence until mounting that long drive. Thanks to that production, followed by White’s 29-yard run on the final possession, the Utes posted 175 total yards in the first half.
After his disastrous pair of turnovers on consecutive drives, Wilson showed some toughness by coming back and directing the TD drive. He delivered the ball confidently and accurately, especially on the touchdown pass to Murphy.
The Utes opened the third quarter with another nice drive, only to have receiver DeVonte Christopher fumble Wilson’s short pitch on what could be described only as a strange call on third-and-goal from the OSU 3 — concluding an odd sequence of plays.
So the Utes are right where they were last season, having opened Pac-12 play with an 0-4 record. They responded with a four-game winning streak in 2011.
Reproducing that run seems less likely this season than the prospect of Utah’s merely coming close a few more times.