On a scale from 1 to 10, the quality of football played at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon was about a … 4. As in, 4 the love of man, let it end. There were fumbles, dropped passes, shanked throws, missed open receivers, missed tackles, blown coverages, penalties, first downs killed by penalties, drives killed by penalties, cats and dogs killed by penalties. And that was in the first quarter alone.
Utah went ahead and won its last game of the season against Colorado, 24-17, and that was satisfying, given that Pac-12 wins were so often beyond its reach. But even the happy final punctuation came with a qualifier: It was accomplished against the hapless Buffs.
And, as Kyle Whittingham said afterward, the Utes "made it more difficult than we should have." He added: "We did some good things. We did some bad things."
At the end, they did a really good thing: they won. Losing against these Buffs would have been humiliating.
Of all the things, though, for which Utah had to apologize in 2013, its strength of schedule was the last on the list. Beating a dog-meat opponent — the only team now with a worse record than the Utes in the Pac-12 South — was their privilege in Game 12.
They earned it. They owned it. They celebrated it. But they did not relish it.
It was too late for relishing anything.
But somehow finishing 5-7, 2-7 in league, seemed to them a whole lot better than 4-8, 1-8. So, with their preseason goal of making it to a bowl game, any bowl game, long gone, the Utes entered their season-ender with thin motivation: Don’t finish last.
There was another thing to achieve, too: Honor the seniors via a win in their final game.
That second one was most worthy.
"We sent the seniors off the way we should," said quarterback Adam Schulz. "With a win."
Guys like Trevor Reilly, Tenny Palepoi and Vyncent Jones deserved more than they had reaped this season. Tasting defeat one last bitter time was not what those players had — or should have had — coming.
There were two fitting moments for Reilly, the beating heart of the Utes all season long: 1) near the very end, when he picked off a pass to ice the game; and 2) in the second quarter, with Utah already up 21-zip, and Utah backed up against its end zone following a Schulz interception. On a fourth-and-goal at the 1, the Buffs ran the ball left on a delay counter which Reilly crushed, dropping CU back Tony Jones on a tackle for loss.
Here’s the thing: There was nothing compromised about either play on account of the fact they came against Colorado, the senior defensive leader having pulled off similar stunts all year long — against the best offenses in the conference.
After the pick, Reilly fired the ball into the stands, in a way, he said, paying tribute to the people who had supported him through a difficult year — on and off the field, what with the Utes losing and his young daughter fighting cancer. Even Whittingham gave him a nod on the move.
Reilly finished with 14 tackles. And the fans chanted his name at the end.
But it wasn’t all sunshine for the Utes. A second-half drive so aptly illustrated their season. Up 21-7 near the end of the third, a drive keyed by tough after-the-catch running by Dres Anderson and a Csonka-esque carry by Kelvin York, the Utes moved toward a put-away touchdown. And then … what the scrud?
Schulz threw a pass to Jake Murphy, who reached for the goal line, fumbling in the process. A Colorado defender grabbed the loose ball and returned it, after a penalty, to the Utah 43. The Buffs ended up with a field goal, cutting the lead to 21-10 instead of a 28-7 deficit. A subsequent CU touchdown drive, after a Utah field goal, cut the lead to seven, and when the Buffs got the ball with two minutes left, Reilly took his interception and his bow.
"I’m just excited we won," he said.
Later, Whittingham talked frankly about his team’s struggles and deficiencies this season. He’s aware of what went wrong and what needs to improve. The question is: Can he fix it? He said he would start the process on Sunday. But not even he knows with any certainty the answer. The only thing he was sure of late Saturday afternoon was that his seniors went out with a victory instead of a loss.
For now, that would have to be enough.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson
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