Late in the fourth quarter, when Utah quarterback Terrance Cain's pass was floating toward receiver Jereme Brooks, it all still seemed so possible.
After everything the Utes did wrong Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium, from Cain's firing 11 straight incompletions in the first half to the Utah defense's allowing a 152-yard rusher, you just figured that somehow, they would overcome all of that and keep winning.
Brian Johnson and the '08 Utes always did, right?
Cain and the '09 Utes did not. Utah was driving toward a tying touchdown in the last two minutes, when Oregon safety John Boyett intercepted Cain's underthrown pass. The result for the Utes was a 31-24 defeat that ended their nation-leading 16-game winning streak, left them with what offensive lineman Zane Beadles described as "a foreign feeling" and tossed the rest of their season into the "to be determined" file.
When it was all over, the sun broke through, casting a glow over the Oregon campus. During the game, the atmosphere was gray and rainy, eerily forecasting a Duck kind of day. The Utes had grown used to the sun shining on their sideline alone over the last couple seasons.
"We all wish that could have gone on for infinity," said coach Kyle Whittingham, alluding to the streak that stretched over parts of three seasons. Forgive him for maybe wishing some of his dependable players could have stuck around longer, to deliver more of the resourceful performances that characterized the perfect '08 campaign. Or perhaps that team's clever escapes just used up Utah's quota.
Whittingham credited his current players with "guts and toughness," after they could have crumbled when trailing 28-10 in the third quarter, but whatever else it took for Johnson and his teammates to produce those fourth-quarter finishes was missing.
So another streak ended, and for anyone looking for a parallel occurrence, it is easy to find. In the third game of the '05 season, after the Utes' run stretched to 18 wins, offensive failings cost them in an overtime loss at Texas Christian.
Cain produced a touchdown run in the first quarter and a creative touchdown pass to Brooks in the third quarter that made it 28-24. In between, and afterward, he struggled. During a seven-series stretch when the Utes failed to gain a first down and netted only 6 yards, Cain went 0-for-10 against Oregon's varied defensive schemes and tight coverage.
The junior college transfer recovered nicely in the second half, only to throw two fourth-quarter interceptions.
The first came after Ute safety Robert Johnson's end zone interception kept the score 28-24, following Johnson's fumble-return touchdown. Oregon linebacker Eddie Pleasant "came out of nowhere," Cain said, with an interception that led to a field goal.
The clincher came after Utah had moved to the Oregon 38. Brooks appeared open, deep on the right sideline, but Boyett made sure the ball never reached its target. "I should have put it a little bit more out there, so [Brooks] would have a chance," Cain said.
The Utes were left to express those sorts of regrets for the first time since November 2007, when BYU's famed "fourth-and-18" play helped beat them.
"I don't expect to lose," said linebacker Stevenson Sylvester. "In fact, it does happen, so we're going to have to learn how to cope with that."
Whittingham walked away saying, "We're still trying to figure out who we are, in a lot of ways."
Who they're not, apparently, is the '08 Utes, which only underscores how remarkable those guys were.