Gordon Monson: What are these Utah Utes, really? Victorious or vulnerable?

The Utes survived a scare in the desert, but will need to clean things up when Oregon visits Rice-Eccles

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising scores a touchdown against Arizona in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

There was something strange and off-putting — along with a significant question — blowing in the desert air on Saturday afternoon. And it wasn’t the smell of blooming saguaros across Pima County.

It was much more disagreeable than that.

It was the surprising stench of a normally redolent Utah football team that everyone expected to breeze into Arizona with its recent voracious appetite for winning, here against a weak league opponent, a foe supposedly perfectly willing and suited to being cooked, grilled, baked, souffléd, whiffed and devoured.

The 1-8 Wildcats (now 1-9), after all, were not seated at the table, but on it, the Utes due to play the dual role of chef and gastronome, roasting and Hoovering the Wildcats in a manner that suggested gluttony.

Yeah, well … oops, none of that happened.

Instead, the food bit back. Picture a plateful of flounder leaping off the dish and chomping the epicure’s nose.

I swear, that’s what occurred here.

Utah beat back the feisty meal for a stinky-difficult 38-29 win in a game that, once it started, was anything but guaranteed, anything but pleasantly aromatic and appetizing.

The Utes held just a two-point lead, an advantage that could have been erased by way of an Arizona two-point try partway through the fourth quarter. That attempt failed, triggering a subsequent clutch Utah drive that made the outcome certain, narrow as it was.

Noxious as it was.

Baffling as it was.

Let’s say it all clear here: It’d gotten to the point coming in where we thought we knew the consumption rate of these Utes. They were good and they were hungry. We figured they no longer were the team that allowed itself to get shoved out of the chow line earlier this fall, losing games to BYU and San Diego State, transforming this season now into a time of feeding, having beaten every other opponent outside of Oregon State.

Instead, on this occasion, they got their just desserts, which typically signifies not any kind of satisfying treat, rather a meted out punishment.

Actually “just desserts” is the wrong spelling for one — or in this case, a team — who gets what one — a team — deserves. You can look it up, it’s “just deserts.”

Which works, considering where, as mentioned, this game was played.

It also works because Utah did just short of everything it could to lose while winning. It pumped its season record to 7-3, its Pac-12 record to 6-1, on the brink now of winning the South and moving into the league championship game. It gets Oregon next at Rice-Eccles, but if the Utes play the way they did against the Wildcats, they will lose to the team they’re likely to play in that title match.

The plot of Saturday’s game, as it turned out, was Utah overcoming the hurt it put on itself, especially with senseless penalties not only wiping out its own big plays, but also breathing life into Arizona drives that otherwise would have ended.

You can read about the details of those troubles elsewhere, but they were stacked in a deep pile of personal fouls and mental errors, along with a blocked punt by the Wildcats that was scooped for a score a third of the way into that fourth quarter, cutting Utah’s lead to 31-29.

Let us repeat and reiterate, Arizona had all of one win before this game, and left it with those nine losses. And the ‘Cats were nearly the equal of a team with a trip to the big bowl in the Arroyo Seco on its mind.

The game was competitive throughout.

There were highlights, what with Cam Rising continuing his top-drawer performances, throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns, and running for another. In the absence of the injured Tavion Thomas, TJ Pledger rushed for 119 yards and two scores. All against an Arizona defense that isn’t as bad as the rest of the team.

On the occasions when the Utes have lost this season, opponents have been able to run on them. That wasn’t really the case here, the Wildcats getting 102 rushing yards. Quarterback Will Plummer did throw for 219 yards. But the story that screamed out of this contest was Utah’s goofs, which was odd since the Utes didn’t fumble and didn’t throw any interceptions.

It was the blocked punt and the untimely flags that administered the greatest amount of pain, wiping out big plays that might have led to touchdowns and a more aesthetic, rewarding win.

The important question then becomes this: Where is the truth with these Utes?

Best case, not only could they be the best team in the Pac-12, but one of the best in the country. The early losses will never allow them to prove that, but with the way they looked before Saturday, if you were an opponent, would you be eager to go against these guys?

Worst case, they are vulnerable, almost losing to … Ari-freaking-zona, mounting en route a major attempt to beat themselves if the ‘Cats couldn’t do it on their own.

Think it over … we’ll wait.

No, you would not.

Yes, you would.

We’ll see how the Ducks feel about it soon enough. They can bite back, too.

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