The Utah Utes were living through one of the mystifying vagaries of sports up until their big win against Stanford, riding an uneven wave to a 1-2 start in the Pac-12.
Put another way, as a team, they were on their way to becoming the Greg Ostertag of college football.
That’s not a compliment. It doesn’t come much more mystifying than that.
On Saturday, they exhibited that they were capable of playing up to high expectations for themselves for a full game against a tough opponent, while earlier, they exhibited that they were incapable of doing it.
And that’s the difference between being sort of a good team and being an exceptional one: consistency.
The Utes are attempting to shift from the former to the latter a fistful of games into the season. It’s not too late, according to them, to make that change and to fulfill the predictions they had for themselves before the season started. And they’re right.
The path to the Pac-12 championship game is open to them via a title in the South, especially given that undefeated Colorado has tougher games in coming weeks.
If the Utes dial in and pull that off, it will be nearly as rewarding and impressive, having washed away the disappointment they suffered after losing those first two league games, and in a lackluster outing against Northern Illinois, as it would have been had they properly handled their business from the start.
Like Ostertag helping the Jazz to the NBA Finals by successfully facing off against Hakeem Olajuwon, even after he previously was dominated by Stanley Roberts and Mike Peplowski.
Ostertag never could explain the undulations in his performances. He was asked a thousand times when he played for the Jazz why he was lousy and why he was great. His answer was the one constant about him. It was, “Uh, I dunno.” Always, “Uh, I dunno.” Forever, “Uh, I dunno.” (There was the time he explained his play by informing everyone that marauding aliens had kidnapped his body and beamed it aboard a spaceship, but I digress.)
How those kinds of competitive vicissitudes happen to an entire team is unknown.
Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley has an explanation, if not a cause. He said the difference against Stanford came down to one word: “Execution.”
He said when one guy does his job, himself included, it bleeds over to the next guy and the next and the next.
But he could not explain why the execution was there so thoroughly on the road against the then-14th-ranked Cardinal when it was more scant in previous outings.
Defensive end Bradlee Anae took a crack at it: “We have a lot of young guys, so there’s a lot of learning. As the season progresses, so do the younger guys. … It has to do with experience, with getting those reps.”
He added: “We just had a lot of fun with this last game. It was a different atmosphere around the team coming into it. It was a different juice we brought. We weren’t playing terrible before that, but we didn’t play well enough. The two [losses] were fights we just didn’t end.”
He never said they were fights they could not have ended.
Anae also confessed that there was a rift, a sense of frustration, growing between the defense, which had been carrying its weight, and the offense, which had not. Against Stanford, everyone was in the pool, supporting one another.
“Before, there had been more of a divide. Now, as it goes on, we’re going to take on teams as a whole. Everyone’s spirit is lighter. Everyone’s going to have fun with it, instead of being chippy. It’s going to be fun and fast, and confident. That will play a big part in how we’re going to play this week and from here on out. There’s a lot of pressure lifted off. We’re going to play much better. We’ll play loose and continue now to do what we know we can do.”
Kyle Whittingham said Saturday night’s showing “was a great effort all the way around in all three phases.”
He noted the defense, the offense, the special teams, and the turnovers created: “You have a plus-four, you’re tough to beat.”
“It was good to see us play like we’re capable of playing,” he said. “That’s who we can be. That’s a real positive for our team to see, when everything’s clicking, when we’re hitting on all cylinders. That’s the team we’re capable of being.”
Still, when the Utes play as well as they did against Stanford, it’s an indictment of when they don’t play like that. After all, if you can, then you should.
“A lot of it had to do with catching two teams that were playing really well that are really talented,” Whittingham noted. “You’d like to play at your absolute peak capacity every week. I don’t know if that’s realistic for anyone in the country.”
Nick Saban would disagree, but then, he has nothing but four- and five-star talent across his roster.
Utah has enough talent to win the South.
It’s a matter of coordinating it properly.
An example would be the Utes’ offensive approach against Stanford. They pounded the rock with Zack Moss and Armand Shyne, allowing them, thanks to a great effort by the offensive line, to soften up a Cardinal defense that had to find a way to stop the run. That enabled Huntley not only to get the offense into advantageous down-and-distance situations, but to also get into a passing rhythm where he wasn’t hauling too much of the attack.
“It kind of clicked,” receiver Demari Simpkins said.
And Simpkins believes it will continue to click.
“We can do more,” he said. “We can always do more. … It’s going to take a lot of practice. We practiced really hard last week. We’re just going to build off of last week. We’re going to keep working. We still feel like we have one of the best groups in the Pac-12, as a whole. We’ve just got to show it.”
Huntley, who said the Stanford win “just felt good,” was asked whether that performance was going to be the standard, the norm from here on out.
“Definitely,” he said.
As long as nobody gets beamed into the sky.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.