Monson: Utah’s football dream, all warmed over, stays alive

Utah wide receiver Samson Nacua celebrates as time runs out in an NCAA college football game against Colorado, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Boulder, Colo. Utah won 30-7. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Kyle Whittingham insisted in the run-up to Saturday’s Utah-Colorado game that Mother Nature could stick it where the sun don’t shine. The weather, a correct frigid, snowy forecast, he said, would make no difference, no way, no how, to the Utes.

They could play in a polar blast in Antarctica and it wouldn’t matter.

His quote: “We’ll win this game even if they have to dig us out of a snowbank with shovels and carve the ice out of our noses with a pick and chip it off our chins with a hammer.”

OK, so that’s not exactly what he said.

This is: “It doesn’t matter what it is. We just play. … Whatever it is, we just put the ball down and snap it, and we play.”

On this occasion, there was so much for which to play.

Whittingham’s players underscored the point in pregame warmups by flipping off the cold, cruel Saturday morning, boldly taking the field minus their shirts, immediately after snowplows had cleared the field and freezing precipitation continued coming down, the wind blowing some of it horizontal at nine miles per hour. It was 28 degrees.

Which way’s the beach?

There was none, not on this day.

But there was the warm breeze of victory, by the count of Utah 30, CU 7.

Thing was, the elements did change the game, if not the determined mindset of the Utes. Footing was tricky at frosty Folsom Field, speed hampered, making running, passing, catching, blocking and tackling tough. Other than that, everything was pretty much standard. A first-quarter targeting call disqualifying Utah defensive leader Chase Hansen made matters no easier. But, then, losing star players — who’s left? — seems to have no effect on Utah football.

It simply rolls forward.

The Utes never stopped scoring and underscoring points.

The Buffs put numbers up first, in the first quarter, going ahead 7-zip. The Utes fought back with a fine drive, punctuated by a great catch by Samson Nacua early in the second, Matt Gay hit a field goal, Jaylen Dixon caught a deep ball on a seam route for a TD and Armand Shyne scored another touchdown in the third, and Gay hit another couple of field goals in the fourth.

The Replacements — quarterback Jason Shelley, running backs Shyne and TJ Green, linebacker Francis Bernard — came on strong down the stretch to gather in the win. Shelley passed for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Shyne and Green combined to run for 98 yards. And Bernard made numerous tackles.

Everybody else worked hard, the defense repeatedly slamming the door on the Buffs, the offense gaining momentum through the crappy conditions.

Lackluster, unemotional, no-motive football emerged not at all in the Blizzard at Boulder. And that was a beautiful thing for the Utes. A beautiful thing, not a flawless one.

Mistakes were made, but there was no lack of effort.

Both teams carried significant reasons to win, beyond just because they liked to or wanted to or were expected to. The Utes played like they had to. That thawed the chilly game environment, shoving them forward, even if their nerves initially were a bit frayed.

The Utes had to win because it was the only result that would give them a shot at keeping their main goal afloat, the goal about which they spoke before the season started: Winning the South. You may have heard, for the 10,000th time, that the Utes are the only team in the division not to have earned that achievement.

With the talent they had and the turmoil — early losses, then injuries and adversity — that surrounded them, this was supposed to be the year. It is what players and coaches had dialed in on all along, come what may. A chance to go to the Pac-12 championship game and even beyond, the Rose Bowl, if things fell right.

Colorado’s deal was a bit different. The Buffaloes had won five straight and then lost five straight. They had shown promise and disappointment. They had beaten Arizona State, and lost to lowly Oregon State, even after leading 31-3. It had gotten so bad that coach Mike MacIntyre’s job was pushed into the line of fire. The Buffs might have been able to save that job and qualify for a bowl game if they could just … beat … the … Utes.

They couldn’t.

They were left to feel the icy chill of defeat after the game ended. And Utah and its dream, now warmed over, stayed very much alive.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.