Kragthorpe: Utes can't rise above Pac-12's bottom tier
The Utah Utes really wanted to believe they were trending in the right direction, positioning themselves for a strong finish this season.
And then they hit the road and ran into the Washington Huskies.
Utah's 34-15 loss Saturday night at CenturyLink Field made those two recent victories seem deceiving, as the Utes reverted to their previous form away from home in a disappointing performance that left their offense, defense and special teams all deserving blame.
They still have a chance to change this assessment by beating Arizona, but right now they're nothing more than a bottom-tier Pac-12 team. Utah is relegated to trying to salvage the season by extending its streak of bowl appearances.
The thing is, this trip to Washington represented the Utes' opportunity to do something noteworthy in their second Pac-12 season. That box remains unchecked for these two years of membership.
The Utes are an undistinguished 6-10 in conference play in 2011 and '12. Their wins last season came against Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA and Washington State. OSU won only two league games, and the other three schools fired their coaches.
This year, Utah has beaten only California and Washington State, programs experiencing definite downturns.
So the Utes (4-6) find themselves needing victories over Arizona and Colorado in their remaining two games just to become bowl-eligible.
Winning in Seattle would have given the Utes a lot of credibility. They actually were favored by the oddsmakers, who apparently ignored how the Huskies knocked off Stanford and Oregon State in this venue and were impressed by Utah's 49-point outbursts against Cal and WSU.
Nothing like that production was forthcoming Saturday, that's for sure.
Utah's No. 106-ranked offense produced two touchdowns twice as many as it delivered in Pac-12 losses at Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State this season but posted only 188 total yards.
Not even John White's 142-yard rushing night was sufficient for the Utes, marking the first time in his 12 career games of 100-plus yards that his team lost. Freshman quarterback Travis Wilson regressed, completing only 8 of 23 passes for 55 yards against a tough defense that sacked him four times.
Utah's defense did not distinguish itself, either. The Utes allowed 437 total yards to the 106th-ranked Washington offense and could not force the Huskies to settle for field-goal attempts, giving up five touchdowns.
In the opening half, the Ute offense produced only 119 yards and 46 of those came on White's touchdown run in the first quarter. Wilson completed 6 of 13 passes for just 32 yards, with one interception and things got worse in the second half.
The Utes converted only 1 of 13 third-down plays in the game, and a fourth-down failure also was costly. On their opening series of the third quarter, White was stuffed on fourth-and-inches at the Ute 43. The Huskies turned that favorable field position into a quick touchdown, making it 21-8.
Utah responded with a drive topped by White's 20-yard touchdown run, but the momentum was lost immediately when Charles Henderson fumbled a punt at the Ute 46. The Huskies' recovery led to another touchdown and a 27-15 advantage.
The Utes simply were not capable of coming back. The defeat leaves them winless on the road this season, with losses to Utah State and four Pac-12 opponents. They have one last chance for success away from home, and it's a very good one at Colorado, Nov. 23.
But unless they can regroup once again and beat Arizona next Saturday, that regular-season finale in Boulder won't mean much at all.