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Kragthorpe: Utes driven by last year’s loss to USU

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Kurt Kragthorpe

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

First published Aug 26 2013 11:42AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:33PM

During the recent dedication ceremony for the $32 million Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, the University of Utah’s benefactor wryly cited "a long drive back from Logan," with a good-natured glance toward Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.

Asked later about his reaction to Spence Eccles’ comment, Whittingham said, "I laughed till I cried."

Being jolted by the memory of Sept. 7 was nothing new to Whittingham, who says he has thought about that game every day since the Utes’ 2012 season ended with a 5-7 record and no bowl bid. "Of course, I’ve thought about every game practically every day," he clarified, "but it was tough."

That’s because all the Utes ultimately needed was one more win for bowl eligibility, and that game — more than any other — was the one that got away. Utah State’s 27-20 overtime victory sticks with the Utes, driving them in preparation for Thursday’s season opener with the Aggies at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

They’ve endured the program’s longest offseason in 10 years, with nine months between games. And the 87-mile drive back to the Utah campus on that Friday night in September resonates, not only for Eccles.

"It was just a long bus ride home," said Ute tight end Jake Murphy. "I don’t remember anyone saying a word."

The long drive basically stemmed from a 23-yard run. Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s scramble on a third-and-9 play led to the Aggies’ go-ahead touchdown in overtime. The Utes then failed to score on their possession, as Jon Hays’ touchdown pass to Murphy was nullified by Murphy’s pass-interference penalty.

"I think about it daily," Murphy said. "We still watch film on it. I still see that play, so it’s something that’s motivated me and makes me want to be a better player and not be in that situation again."

The call was questionable; so was the no-call on the game’s last play when USU’s Will Davis defended Utah receiver DeVonte Christopher in the end zone. But the Utes knew they had caused too many of their own problems to complain. Utah allowed a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown, fielded a punt inside the 5-yard line and left the entire left half of the field open when Keeton dropped back to pass in overtime, among other mistakes.

The Utes blanketed USU’s receivers, flooding to the right side, "but they didn’t cover me," Keeton said that night. "I’m thankful for that."

Keeton was knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line, leading to Kerwynn Williams’ touchdown and the end of Utah’s 12-game winning streak in the series.

"We failed to contain him, and that can’t happen," Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said last week. "In the heat of the moment, I can understand a lot of the mistakes that were made. … [But] we demand a lot of our guys, and we expect to win games on defense."

The Ute defense performed well in regulation, holding USU to 13 offensive points, 355 total yards and 1 of 12 third-down conversions. Those numbers are meaningful in the context of Thursday’s game — and so is "USU 27, Utah 20."

In the Pac-12 era, Utah has opened its seasons with uninspiring wins over Big Sky Conference opponents Montana State and Northern Colorado. In contrast, here come the Aggies, with the Utes motivated by the memories of 51 weeks ago in Logan.

"It’s a little bit different of a feel," Murphy said, summarizing preseason camp. "No disrespect to Northern Colorado and those teams, but given what happened last year and given how good Utah State is, especially … it’s changed the vibe of the whole offseason."

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

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