Fans streamed out of the stands and players rolled their helmets across the field in a bowling motion as the joy of a successful season took hold Saturday evening.
Yeah, the Utah Utes can say they made some people very happy this year. Not the folks who care about them, however.
As the darkness of late November fell over Martin Stadium, the Washington State Cougars celebrated a 49-37 victory and the Utes were left to wonder what went wrong in a season that crumbled on them.
"Not much of a worse feeling than disappointing everybody," said Utah quarterback Adam Schulz.
Take your pick of the best measurement of the Utes’ fall: They’ve dropped all five games since somehow beating Stanford in October, and they gave up 49 points - with contributions from their offense and defense - to a team they beat 49-6 last November.
Utah (4-7) will endure consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1989 and ‘90, during the transition from Jim Fassel to Ron McBride. That’s where the comparison to that embarrassing period should end. Yet even with the disclaimer of Utah’s being consistently competitive in the Pac-12, there’s no hiding from a 1-7 conference record.
"I don’t rationalize it," said coach Kyle Whittingham.
Whittingham’s job is not an issue, but the program faces another long winter with the potential for more staff changes, the need for recruiting upgrades in the secondary and the dilemma of a quarterbacking situation that won’t be solved by Schulz’s fill-in performance. Whatever the Utes achieved by beating Stanford was undone by their inability to follow through, as they’ve fallen to 8-18 in three seasons of Pac-12 competition.
The Utes may not be that far away in this league, but their progress is not exactly quantifiable. Knowing his career will end next weekend, Ute defensive star Trevor Reilly rested his head in a towel as he awaited his turn in postgame interviews. "I feel sorry for the fans and the alumni more than anything, that we let them down," he said.
It’s unfair to him, to feel that way, but that’s Utah’s reality. There’s always enough blame to spread around for the Utes’ collapse, as illustrated again by what unfolded Saturday. On consecutive possessions in the first quarter, Schulz threw two interceptions - one was not necessarily his fault - and both were returned for touchdowns. Just like that, it was 21-0. WSU’s Connor Holliday, meanwhile, attempted 62 passes and was never intercepted or even sacked. Utah should have many more than two interceptions this season, just by accident.
And regardless of how much credit the Utes deserve for cutting the lead to 43-37 early in the fourth quarter, the truth is they could not capitalize on chances to complete the comeback.
"I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win the game," Schulz said.
But after Utah got the ball back, Kelvin York was stuffed on a third-and-2 run, forcing a punt. Halliday responded with a 71-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Williams and the Cougars (6-5) became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013.
"We’ve been through the ringer - been through a coaching change, been through a two-win season, and been through everything," Halliday said.
The Utes have not reached those depths, certainly, but they have to work to do in hopes of even getting to a bowl game next season. Not even the most reasonable forecasts for Utah’s transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 would have projected this team’s winning only one-third of its conference games over three seasons - and that’s assuming a victory next weekend.
So as the Utes review this season, they likely will be left with only their traditional rivalry game as a mark of success. Somehow, I doubt that beating Colorado will be fully satisfying to them.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.