Santa Clara, Calif.
After the final seconds slid off the clock at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night, the Utah Utes slumped away in disappointment, dark skies overhead, seeming to want to get out of the lights splashing down on them.
One by one, as the Washington Huskies celebrated, the Utes wandered off a field where they had missed out on an opportunity that slipped through their hands, bounced off a leg and into the air, then was snatched by one of the celebrators, who returned it 66 yards for a pick-six. A cruel chance that, in the end, left them lurching and hurting, suffering and wondering.
What might have been.
They were not champions of the Pac-12, having been downed by the Huskies by the count of 10-3 and, thereby, blocked from the Rose Bowl. If college football gets more heartbreaking than that, whatever it might be is a mystery in this corner.
The Utes had every reason to be bummed.
But they also had reason to feel OK. Not great, not yet, but at some point in the not-to-distant future they could think about what they had done, breathe deep and stand up tall. They still had accomplished what no other Utah team had ever achieved — a trip to the league title game.
Maybe they’ll go ahead and rid themselves, someday, of the bitter drag of falling short in the chance of a lifetime — playing where college football’s ghosts linger — in the bowl game at the Arroyo Seco.
But not this day.
Consolation will have to wait.
In a game that was about as uncomely as a game could be — at least on the offensive side of things, the Utes never could get much of anything going. On the other hand, neither could the Huskies. It was a game Buddy Ryan or George Halas or Ray Nitschke would have loved, but nobody else.
Stellar defense, sagging offense.
It was the first time in a Pac-12 championship game that neither team scored in the first quarter. And that lack of point production spilled over from there. The Huskies gained more yards than the Utes — 306 to 188. They led, 3-zip, at halftime. The Utes didn’t cross midfield until a minute remained in the second quarter.
The next half saw more of the same: A 53-yard Matt Gay field goal and … and …nothing more.
The Utes couldn’t run it. They couldn’t pass it. And nobody could figure out any other way to try to advance the ball.
The biggest play of the game came with the score knotted at 3-all late in the third quarter. Ute quarterback Jason Shelley dropped back to pass, firing a ball to Siaosi Mariner for what would have been a first down. Instead, it bounced off the receiver’s hands, off his thigh, into the hands of Byron Murphy, a defensive back for the Huskies, who rocketed those 66 yards for a touchdown, the only one of the game.
It may have been the weirdest big play of the year — and the most troubling for Utah.
The Utes had started this season with great expectations for themselves, having picked up indications that they might be pretty darn good based on their practice sessions and scrimmages. They had started all right, then dipped low, then fought back to beat teams and conquer their own demons, straight through injuries and finding replacements, to win the South Division.
And now … this.
Falling to the North.
Because Utah’s attack heaved and labored, the defense was forced to work its lonely wonders. It tried, tried hard, severely limiting Washington’s offense. UW running back Myles Gaskin gained a mere 71 yards. QB Jake Browning threw for only 187.
But Shelley threw for just 137 yards, Armand Shyne ran for just 37.
Bottom line: Washington’s defense was flat better than Utah’s offense. That was a painful truth for the Utes, but there’s no horrible shame in it.
“It didn’t turn out for us,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, afterward. “But it was a heckuva season.”
And so, now, Utah will go to some other bowl, not the Rose. Perhaps the Holiday or the Alamo or the Sun. The Utes’ ascent this season fell short. Hard as it might be right now, someday they’ll look back and appreciate the distance they traveled.
Just not this day.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.