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Utah football: Utes need a Pac-12 win — here comes UCLA

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah head football coach, Kyle Whittingham, talks with the media during the team's press conference at the school's new football facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, Monday Aug. 26, 2013.

By Lya Wodraska

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Oct 02 2013 03:06PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:35PM

The Utah Utes earned a reputation as a team to be reckoned with when they went 4-1 against ranked teams from 2007 through the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

But ever since their upset over Alabama, which put them on the figurative college football map, the Utes have struggled against the nation’s elite.

The Utes are just 2-7 against ranked teams since the start of the 2009 season. The wins were an overtime victory over No. 15 Pitt in 2010 and a 24-21 win over No. 25 BYU in 2012.

Further, since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes are just 7-12 against league opponents and are still looking for a win against a Pac-12 team that finished the year with a winning record.

It’s time, the Utes say, to change their fortunes. Not so coincidentally, No. 12 UCLA arrives Thursday for an 8 p.m. nationally televised game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"We have a lot to prove," Utah receiver Dres Anderson said. "We have a lot more to put out there that we can do and hopefully we can do that against UCLA."

The Utes keep saying they are an improved team, but they know at some point, all that improvement needs to show up against solid opponents. They didn’t join the Pac-12 to be a perennial also-ran in the bottom tier of the standings.

They haven’t stated so publicly, but it is pretty much a given that the Utes are no longer trying to match their past BCS-busting success. They still need time to catch up to the caliber of play in the Pac-12 with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham continuously emphasizing Utah is in the midst of a multi-year building process.

Just reaching a bowl game would be an achievement for a team about to embark on their toughest conference schedule ever, with contests against No. 2 Oregon, No. 5 Stanford and No. 22 ASU remaining.

"Every week in this league is a challenge," Whittingham said. "But this is why you coach, to go up against a high level of competition. Our players are excited for it too."

Whittingham is careful to not put a win-loss number to determine Utah’s success — he just wants to see improvement. That is a sound tactic, considering how perishable college football coaches are considered these days. Lose a big game, have a few poor performances and a coach can be fired before he even gets home from a game. Just ask USC’s Lane Kiffin.

Rather than worrying about the future, though, Whittingham and the Utes’ main concern is beating the Bruins because this is exactly the kind of game they need to win if they are to be a successful Pac-12 team.

Seeing so many ranked teams isn’t unusual in BCS leagues — in fact, it’s the norm. So while the Bruins might have a lethal offense, a solid defense and a gritty attitude, the Utes know Thursday’s game is just a taste of what is to come this year.

"This league has great teams from top to bottom," defensive end Trevor Reilly said. "You could make an argument it is the toughest conference in the country."

Despite their poor track record in the Pac-12, the Utes say they won’t be intimidated by the Bruins and their lofty ranking. If anything, Utah linebacker Jared Norris says they relish the role.

"We have been upsetters before and we want to be the same type of team again," he said. "It doesn’t matter who we are playing. We still want to do our best and we still always think we have a chance to win."

The Utes like their chances against the Bruins for a couple of reasons. For one, they’ve got a good history against the team, having upset the Bruins 44-6 in 2007 when the Bruins were ranked No. 11 and playing the Bruins to a 21-14 loss last year. Moreover, the Utes are confident their young secondary has improved based on its play in the 20-13 win over BYU.

Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill struggled with accuracy, going 18 for 48 for 260 yards, but part of his woes had to do with Utah’s defensive play too, according to Whittingham.

"We still had some misalignments and bad eyes, but they were things that were very fixable," he said. "Overall it was a huge improvement, and we need that trend to continue, but they have the right work ethic and mentality when they come to practice."

Whittingham has warned in the past that Utah’s improvements might not always show in their record, given the difficulty of life in the Pac-12. But like his players, he too acknowledged that signature wins need to start coming at some point.

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