Kragthorpe: Many more close calls await Utes
This is not necessarily the best material for a marketing campaign, but the Utah Utes certainly are providing a lot more drama this season.
They have already played two three-point games - including an overtime loss - and there's more anxiety to come, starting today against Air Force at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Remember the "Fasten your seat belts" theme about the offensive scheme in advance of Urban Meyer's first season? That's good advice tonight - and the rest of this season. Hang on, baby.
For one thing, the Utes and Falcons always play close games. Last September's 49-35 victory was easily packaged as another in a season-long series of routs for the '04 Utes, considering they led by 21 points before AFA's late score. But the Falcons provided by far the most resistance of any opponent.
Air Force was within 35-28 late in the third quarter and quarterback Shaun Carney ran for a first down at the AFA 42-yard line, only to have his questionable fumble recovered by Utah's Marquess Ledbetter. The Utes took control from there.
In the previous 10 years, the average margin of victory in this series was four points, including a pair of one-pointers.
There's more where that came from for the Utes - and not just against Air Force.
As coach Kyle Whittingham says, his team is good, not great, like last year's Utes. That makes things a lot more intriguing, and means they have to play for 60 minutes, for a change.
Every '04 opponent except Air Force was basically cooked by halftime. This year, the Utes had to hold on after taking a 27-10 lead over Arizona and lost a 17-7 lead in the third quarter last week at Texas Christian.
"I think we get comfortable too often," said Ute center Jesse Boone. "We're used to getting up by a couple of touchdowns and just getting
comfortable, and we can't afford to do that. . . . We have to learn how to finish teams better."
Last year, the Utes made a parody of the Mountain West Conference.
This year, there's parity.
Fans can decide for themselves which is more fun, but ESPN has to prefer this version of the Utes. The network was in town for two classic weeknight games in 2003, when the Utes earned tough victories over California and Oregon, but the '04 team was hardly interested in keeping viewers in the East riveted to their televisions well into the night.
Those days of over-and-out dismissals of opponents by the Utes are gone. Everybody in the Mountain West is back in the game.
Of the four conference games staged this month, three were decided by a total of six points - including Air Force's one-point loss to Wyoming and the Utes' three-point defeat at TCU. That's what this league will be like, and don't be surprised if two losses is sufficient for a share of the championship, especially considering each team is playing eight league games.
But dealing with two losses this early is another issue, and that's what the Utes and Falcons are suddenly facing today.
After 20-plus years, Ute athletic director Chris Hill has arrived at the perfect way to voice his expectations for any of his teams: being in contention for a league title going into the stretch run. That way, nobody can accuse him either of being unrealistic or not being supportive.
In football, that means having a title to play for in November. At this point, the Utes just want to make it out of September.
And that's why this is Utah's biggest game since November 2003, at Air Force. That may sound funny, considering how a Bowl Championship Series bid was at stake every week last season, but there's so much on the line tonight.
After last year's fantasy, this is what it's like in the real world: playing to keep conference title hopes alive, keep a fan base interested and keep a program from declining.
Yes, this is the effect of losing one football game, in Utah's case. The next game becomes very important. And it will be close.
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