Travis Wilson floated above the field, riding on the shoulders of fans celebrating Utah’s upset of Stanford at Rice-Eccles Stadium in October.
That scene might have served as an enduring image of a year when this program became relevant in the Pac-12. Instead, it has become cruelly ironic, a symbol of a season that subsequently crumbled for the Utes and their sophomore quarterback.
Wilson’s career may have ended, due to a pre-existing condition discovered last week when he was being treated for a concussion. His football future will remain unknown for several months, coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday.
The early end of Wilson’s season comes after former Ute quarterback Jordan Wynn missed a bowl game in 2010 and then was sidelined with shoulder injuries in each of the next two years, ultimately ending his career.
"It does get frustrating and disappointing at times," Whittingham said.
The Utes (4-6) have two more Saturdays to salvage something of this season, needing two wins to achieve bowl eligibility. Bowl games may be devalued in this era of college football, but that only means there’s greater stigma in not qualifying, with a huge gulf between records of 5-7 and 6-6.
The standards for evaluating Utah’s season should not change in Wilson’s absence. Utah State did not collapse after quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s injury in early October, so the Utes could beat Washington State and Colorado with former walk-on Adam Schulz, who performed decently in Saturday’s 44-21 loss at Oregon.
If inadequate quarterbacking becomes the biggest reason the Utes don’t win those games, though, I’ll partly blame some recruiting misses at the position for the program’s failures of these two seasons. The Pac-12 was just weak enough for the Utes to earn a bowl bid behind fill-in QB Jon Hays in 2011. Not so last year, when Wynn went down again and Hays and Wilson took their turns.
This season, following Wilson’s outstanding game against Stanford, a hand injury contributed to his struggles in losses to Arizona, USC and Arizona State. Whittingham said the concussion Wilson sustained on a running play against ASU apparently did not affect his performance in that game.
There’s a human element that goes beyond any discussion of where Utah’s season is headed. Wilson deserves appreciation for what he’s tried to do after taking over in October of last season as a true freshman and starting for 16 games. If this is the end of football for him, he’ll have to live with three disappointing performances as the conclusion.
Yet he’ll always have that landmark victory over Stanford and a performance against BYU that made him the Pac-12 offensive player of the week in mid-September — much like Wynn’s becoming the offensive MVP against Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl and beating BYU twice. Wynn finally decided to give up football. Wilson, for now, faces an uncertain future.
"I can’t imagine hearing that news," said Schulz, his close friend.
"Travis has a good mindset … whether he can play or whether he can’t play," said Ute tight end Jake Murphy. "He’s real mature in his thoughts and his life. I know he wouldn’t want anyone feeling bad for him. Whatever happens, he’ll be all right, I know that."
So here’s Schulz, whose high school coach in Wisconsin once searched for a good walk-on opportunity for him (he’s now on scholarship), being asked to save Utah’s season.
After being caught with a lack of quarterbacking depth as they entered the Pac-12, the Utes appear reasonably well stocked at the position for 2014, making Wilson’s possible return a bonus. As for the next two games, they’re banking exclusively on Schulz — unless more disaster ensues. With this program lately, you never know.
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