Kragthorpe: Utes reverse course mid-meltdown
Fort Collins, Colo.
In the cold of Colorado, the Utah Utes were melting Saturday night.
They were finding ways to short-circuit their own scoring chances, surrendering two third-quarter touchdowns and and generally doing their part to energize a Colorado State team hungry for a program-changing upset of the Mountain West Conference's defending champions at Hughes Stadium.
And then it all changed, and symmetrically so.
Three touchdown drives.
Three interceptions by safety Robert Johnson.
Just like that, the Utes recovered nicely, taking a 24-17 victory. The victory's importance stems either from what winning means to this team, or what losing would have meant.
Either way, the '09 Utes come out ahead, and here's why: Coach Kyle Whittingham could invoke comparisons to '08 and nobody could mention '05, the last time the Utes tried to back up a Bowl Championship Series appearance.
Almost exactly four years to the day, in the same setting -- only much warmer than Saturday's mid-20s conditions -- the Utes crumbled in a game that characterized their season of inconsistency. They blew a 14-3 lead and were stopped at the goal line at the end of a 21-17 defeat.
This was the Rams' turn to wonder what happened. It was was evidence of one program's staying power and another's slow growth. "I just thought our football team was ready to take this step," said CSU coach Steve Fairchild.
While the Utes apparently did not plan to trail 17-3, they made quite an statement in the 20 minutes that followed.
"Very similar to how our team operated last year in those same situations," Whittingham said. And what made all of this so impressive, so significant, was that the key offensive players were either playing in junior college (quarterback Terrance Cain), buried on the depth chart (tailback Eddie Wide) or barely involved (receiver David Reed) when the '08 Utes were delivering season-saving drives against Air Force, Oregon State and Texas Christian.
The current Utes answered with variety. They started with a two-play touchdown drive, highlighted by Cain's 47-yard pass to Reed. Then came an epic march that covered 73 yards, took 17 plays and lasted nearly nine minutes, with three third-down conversions inside the 20-yard line, including Wide's 1-yard TD run. The winning march was something in between, requiring seven plays, featuring Reed's 45-yard catch and Wide's 8-yard touchdown via a swing pass with 3:40 remaining.
"I just wanted to get in the end zone and do a checkmate, finish the game off," Wide said.
Actually, that required Johnson's help. The Rams' last three possessions -- when they were ahead by seven, tied and down by seven -- ended with Johnson's interceptions of quarterback Grant Stucker.
"If the offense makes big plays," Johnson explained, "we feel the defense has got to make big plays."
Good formula, and the result was a major contrast to how this game was shaping up when CSU was scoring two third-quarter touchdowns and the Utes were continually hurting themselves with two turnovers and two fourth-down failures.
A loss to begin conference play? "Devastating," Ute linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said, with the benefit of not having to deal with such an outcome.
Instead, "Nobody showed any letdown," Stevenson said. "We were just mad at ourselves for what happened."
And the Utes did something about it. They would rather not have gone through 45 minutes of frustration to get there, but the ending was all that mattered. "We don't want to make a habit of it," Whittingham said.
Just the same, it's nice to know these guys have it in them.