Saving the season ordinarily is not required in August. That’s exactly what the Utah Utes were facing Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
With a loss to Utah State, as seemed almost inevitable in the middle of the third quarter, Utah would have been reeling already. From that bleak outlook, there emerged a Ute recovery that will make this team worth watching for a while.
The Utes earned their 30-26 victory because quarterback Travis Wilson remained steady, coach Kyle Whittingham’s gamble was rewarded, skier-turned-kicker Andy Phillips came through in his football debut and a troubled defense responded to coaching adjustments and turned things around when it mattered.
“Our team really responded well,” Wilson said. “We had no doubt that we weren’t going to win this game.”
Out of that unintentionally negative sentence came a very positive outcome for Utah.
This was good stuff, for starters. The Utes trailed by nine points in the third quarter, went ahead by one, fell behind by two, regained the lead and then secured a tough victory with a clutch drive that resulted in Phillips’ clinching field goal with 19 seconds remaining.
For the sake of the story, this is what I wanted to see: The Utes having to respond under pressure, when everything was going against them and their season was crumbling in front of them.
That’s the takeaway from Thursday, beyond the brilliant performance of USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton and the vulnerability of Utah’s proud defense. The Utes came through in a game they absolutely had to win.
“It opens up the door to the rest of the season being a great season,” said running back Karl Williams.
This game also goes into the books as a missed opportunity for USU in the first game for coach Matt Wells, but losing would have been far more devastating to Utah.
The Utes obviously were not dominant. For long stretches, they were inconsistent offensively and struggled defensively, resulting in Whittingham’s accurate description of “an average football team right now, at best.”
Yet the way it all unfolded makes the victory meaningful to the Utes. They have problems to solve, but their second-half effort provided answers to some questions that would have lingered painfully. When Keeton’s final pass fell incomplete near the end zone and the Utes could celebrate, beating the Aggies sure seemed like an accomplishment.
So credit a Ute defense that forced three three-plays-and-out sequences in the second half — two of them when USU held a 23-14 lead — and made the Aggies settle for a field goal on a drive inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. Wilson, who passed for 302 yards, and Whittingham also merit praise for their parts in the Utes’ two-part comeback.
Whittingham’s gutsy onside-kick call in the third quarter was vital to the comeback, thanks to Williams’ recovery. Wilson’s subsequent completions of 22 and 26 yards to Sean Fitzgerald — who replaced star receiver Kenneth Scott, sidelined for the season in the first quarter — led to Williams’ go-ahead touchdown, making it 24-23.
The Utes then fell behind 26-24 before Wilson’s passing powered another drive, ending with Phillips’ 19-yard field goal to make it 27-26.
And then the Utah defense made another critical stop. Call it a case of shrewdly leaving room for improvement. The Utes allowed 391 total yards through the first drive of the second half and 96 yards the rest of the way
Those guys got better, just in time.