For once, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham encountered a football season that he could not salvage — no matter how creatively he tried to do so.
Utah’s hopes of bowl eligibility ended Saturday night with a 34-24 loss to Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Whittingham and his staff attempted fake kicks and other tricks in an effort to match Arizona’s high-powered offense, but they did not succeed frequently enough to extend Utah’s season beyond Friday’s game at Colorado.
“To not make it to a bowl game is kind of bizarre,” said Ute receiver DeVonte Christopher, who resurfaced in this game with three receptions and a touchdown.
If the reality of life in the Pac-12 had not set in before, it should now. The defeat dropped the Utes’ record to 6-11 in two seasons of conference play — and 2-7 against the other members of the South division.
Those are sobering numbers. After meeting Colorado, Utah (4-7) will have all kinds of time to re-evaluate, with any bowl opportunity gone.
“It’s tough, no doubt about that,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to keep recruiting and keep trying to build and get better ourselves better.”
The Utes will spend December at home for the first time since 2002. They’ll remember how they could not hold a fourth-quarter lead, allowed nearly 480 total yards to an Arizona offense led by quarterback Matt Scott and running back Ka’Deem Carey and were stopped four times on fourth down in the game.
Whittingham coached aggressively, figuring that was his best chance of matching Arizona’s dynamic offense. The Utes attempted fourth-down conversions on each of their first three possessions, finally converting when kicker Coleman Petersen ran 3 yards for a touchdown on a fake field goal.
“The opportunity just opened up,” Petersen said.
Utah also tried a fake punt in the fourth quarter. Mike Honeycutt was stopped 4 yards short of the first down after catching punter Sean Sellwood’s pass, which was behind him and forced him to adjust.
“We were playing to win,” said Whittingham, who liked the design of the play, just not the execution.
The Utes recovered two fumbles and made a fourth-down stop of their own, enabling them to stay within 17-14 at halftime. The defense responded better in the third quarter, and the Utes took a 24-17 lead on Travis Wilson’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Christopher.
Arizona (7-4) was far from finished, though. The Wildcats answered with a tying touchdown drive. Then, after the failed fake punt, Arizona went ahead 31-24 on Scott’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hill.
Utah’s offense could not move past midfield until after the Wildcats had added a clinching field goal.
“We didn’t make it happen in the fourth quarter,” Wilson said.
This is an unusual ending for Whittingham, certainly.
Whittingham went into the final regular-season game of 2005, his first year as head coach, needing a win over BYU to become bowl-eligible. The Utes delivered a 41-34 overtime win in Provo.
Utah also salvaged its seasons in ’06 and ’07 after poor starts. Last year, the Utes went from 3-4 in late October to 7-5 before beating Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
So Whittingham was looking to continue that trend Saturday, facing an Arizona team with a great offense and a lousy defense — basically, the antithesis of Utah. This time, Utah’s offense produced 449 total yards, including Wilson’s 311 passing yards, but the Utes could not quite keep up.
The result is a loss that means that Utah’s season will end in November, a full month before the Utes’ usual conclusion.