As Saturday night nearly turned into Sunday morning at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utah Utes failed to complete their greatest rally as Pac-12 members.
Now, after a wild adventure that resulted in a 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State, they’ll need a comeback just to keep their conference season from crumbling.
After storming back to take a one-point lead, the Utes surrendered a fourth-down conversion that eventually enabled the Beavers to score the go-ahead touchdown. Ute quarterback Travis Wilson then ran 9 yards for the tying score with 21 seconds remaining in regulation.
But the Beavers held Utah to a field goal on their overtime possession and won with a touchdown pass.
So in just a matter of minutes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes went from thinking about a possible 4-0 overall record to begin this season to bringing the potential for another 0-4 start in the Pac-12 into play.
You know what they say: It’s impossible to start 0-4 without being 0-1.
That gloomy forecast is a product of the Utes’ history in the Pac-12 and the reality of a schedule that brings powerful UCLA and Stanford to town before it gets any easier.
There’s enough blame to go around for this defeat. Wilson threw three interceptions in the second half — with one of them returned for a touchdown — just when the offense seemed to have recovered from a poor start. Utah’s secondary allowed 443 passing yards and five touchdowns in regulation.
That’s unacceptable, even against a quarterback and receivers of OSU’s caliber.
I’ll say this, though: The 2013 conference opener was the most fun, entertaining and riveting game the Utes have played as Pac-12 members. And the Utes’ display of resilience suggests they should not be written off in any of their remaining games.
Utah fell behind by 13 points early in the second quarter and by 17 early in the third quarter before rallying. The Utes claimed a 38-37 lead when Wilson ran 24 yards for a touchdown with 4:25 remaining.
Oregon State answered with a clutch scoring drive that featured Sean Mannion’s 13-yard completion to Richard Mullaney on a fourth-and-9 play from the OSU 22. Thanks to a two-point conversion, OSU took a 45-38 advantage — before Wilson tied the game with his 9-yard run with 21 seconds left.
Utah opened conference play in their inaugural Pac-12 season of 2011 with losses to USC, Washington, Arizona State and California. Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn was sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury in the second half of the Washington game, with Jon Hays taking over and eventually leading a revival that took the Utes to the Sun Bowl.
Last season, Utah’s first four conference games resulted in losses to Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Oregon State. The Utes made another mild recovery after Wilson replaced Hays as the starting quarterback, but they could not become bowl-eligible.
Here’s the problem with Utah’s bid to avoid another 0-4 start in Pac-12 play: UCLA, Stanford and Arizona. After visiting BYU next weekend, the Utes will host two nationally ranked teams before traveling to Arizona. They’re capable of winning any of those games, but they’re sure to be underdogs in all of them.
In falling behind 20-10 at halftime, the Utes hurt themselves with a slow-starting offense and a defense that had trouble with pass coverage and third-down conversions.
The OSU defense that allowed 49 points and 625 total yards to Eastern Washington in the season opener looked fast and aggressive, holding Utah to 12 net yards on its first 11 plays of the game. The Utes finally came to life, scoring on Wilson’s 49-yard pass to Dres Anderson, but OSU answered with an 89-yard touchdown drive.
Turns out, that was just a sample of a crazy game.