Monson: Will heartbreak break the Utes? (with video)
Blown opportunity against Oregon State may be a harbinger of rough season.
Published: September 16, 2013 11:20AM
Updated: September 15, 2013 06:09PM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) hands off to Utah Utes running back James Poole (34) as the University of Utah hosts Oregon State, college football at Rice Eccles Stadium Saturday, September 14, 2013 in Salt Lake City.

So … that didn’t go exactly the way Utah had planned.

It didn’t go the way anyone had planned.

In a Pac-12 opener that was about as fortuitous a set-up as the Utes could have scripted for themselves, they couldn’t — didn’t — take advantage, falling to Oregon State, 51-48, in overtime at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night.

The chronology went like this: Utah fell flat early and then battled back to turn ineptitude into exhilaration — insanity, even — and, ultimately, back into disappointment.

The Utes trailed by 17 points in the first minute of the second half, drew within three, fell back, drew within three, again, eventually took the lead, fell behind, again, tied it, and finally, in OT, let the game slip away.

In their attempts to slow Beaver quarterback Sean Mannion, who tore the Utes apart in the first half, passing for 219 yards, and winding up with a total of 443 and five TDs, they failed. They failed in overtime, when Mannion beat them one last time with that last touchdown pass. Travis Wilson tried to keep up, showing flashes of great passing and running, but the sophomore also made costly mistakes, chucking interceptions, including a pick-6, and defeat tagged Utah.

For some reason, the Utes didn’t commit enough resources to do what they had to do to win: pressure Mannion, make him jumpy. That was their open road to victory, and everybody knew it, but sometimes the Utes seemed to forget.

The undulating defeat is costly — not just for the numerical deficit in which it puts Utah, but also for the psychological hole.

Think about what comes now in succession: a rivalry game against BYU on the road, a tough home game against UCLA, a tougher home game against Stanford, two roadies — at Arizona and USC, then a game at Rice-Eccles against Arizona State before traveling to play an impossible game at Oregon.

Yeah. Uh-oh.

If Utah couldn’t stay with the Beavers, a team that was burdened by an earlier loss to Eastern Washington and injuries at key positions, here in the friendliest of environs, what consequence does that project for the arduous climb ahead against teams that are better on fields that are hostile?

Not anything that is particularly encouraging.

Utah has been down this road before.

After compiling a 5-7 record a year ago, and more significantly, a 3-6 record in league that commenced with four straight losses, the Utes needed a boost this time around. They needed a solid foundation. They needed a reason to believe. They needed a win.

Starting off Pac-12 play with a home loss against a beatable foe keeps the spark they lacked wet, cold and dark, despite the heart and fight they showed. An opportunity to build the very thing the Utes themselves said was so important early on — confidence — went unlit, unbuilt, unfulfilled.

Moral victory was no victory on this occasion.

The defense knew it had to disrupt Mannion, who came into this game hitting 80 percent of his passes, gaining just short of 400 yards through the air per game. He repeatedly picked on Utah’s corners and dissected the entire secondary, causing all kinds of pain.

He was comfortable, even though two Beaver starters up front were out with injury. On top of that, OSU’s run game had been nearly nonexistent in its first two games, and wasn’t all that effective Saturday night, a circumstance that forced OSU to pass a lot, twisting coach Mike Riley into a pretzel.

“It’s not OK,” he said. “We’re not at our best when we don’t have a balanced offensive attack.”

Still, Mannion put 51 points on the board to win.

And the Utes tried real hard, but sagged away.

At game’s end, Kyle Whittingham wandered across the field, looking to shake hands with Riley and the victors. His expression was empty, his league record even emptier. He knows the challenge is about to get greater. He knows he must now quickly uncover answers to his team’s problems ­— first, against a rival, and, then, against an unforgiving league bent on keeping those solutions buried.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.