Utah fans are scarred by November failures, but the Utes now have a capable offense

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) runs the ball, as California Golden Bears safety Ashtyn Davis (27) defends, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham always judges a whole football season, never breaking it down by month or any other category.

The rest of the world is free to do so. Framing the month of November as critical to Utah's season is natural, especially considering the Utes' missed opportunities of the past and what's potentially available to them this season.

Thanks to a fourth-quarter rally, the Utes earned a 33-28 win at Washington on Nov. 2. That victory lifted Utah to 16-16 in Pac-12 games in November over nine seasons. The Utes are 23-23 in conference games in September and October.

In that sense, Utah’s late-season failures are mythologized. November games just feel more important, though. And the Utah fan base is scarred by November losses to the likes of UCLA, Arizona and Colorado in this decade, with bowl eligibility or a Pac-12 South championship at stake.

In 2015, standing 8-1 with a No. 10 ranking in the College Football Playoff Top 25, the Utes lost 37-30 at Arizona in double overtime and then fell at home to UCLA, failing to score a touchdown in a 17-9 defeat.


When • Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV • Ch. 13

Coincidentally enough, UCLA and Arizona are the Utes’ next two opponents (followed by Colorado) in a season that could take them to the Rose Bowl or even the College Football Playoff. To get anywhere glamorous, they must beat those South rivals and, presumably, Oregon in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 6.

“You don't get this far just to lose now,” said Ute senior safety Julian Blackmon. “Especially because we thought we had a special team, coming in.”

At Washington, Blackmon said, the Utes proved they're “a tough team that can get out of a lot of different situations, as I think you saw.”

Utah also has its best offense of the Pac-12 era, after that group was largely responsible for the letdowns of the past. The Utes rank No. 4 in the Pac-12 in total offense, to go with their No. 1 defense.

Asked what determines how well a team finishes the season, Whittingham cited several variables: “Matchups, who you play, how your team is playing, the state of your health; all that stuff factors in.”

The irony is the Utes came through last November under dire circumstances, having lost quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to season-ending injuries. They responded to a Nov. 3 loss at Arizona State by beating Oregon and Colorado — and got a break when Oregon defeated ASU, handing the South title to the Utes.

To conclude the regular season, Utah then rallied from 27-7 down late in the third quarter to top BYU 35-27, winning for the first time in seven years in the game played nearest Whittingham's birthday (Nov. 21). So the program's November curse should have ended forever, except the Pac-12 championship game was staged Nov. 30 and a crazy bounce of the football off former receiver Siaosi Mariner's leg resulted in a Washington interception return for the game's only touchdown in the Huskies' 10-3 win.

The current Utes got even, to some extent, with their determined effort in Seattle this month. The rest of November shapes up nicely for them. In the final three games, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Utah at least an 88.2% chance of winning. The models of statistics expert Joseph Silverzweig of Utah Rivals are close to 100%.

For Ute fans, that information should be just frightening enough to make those games interesting.


Utah's missed opportunities in November in the Pac-12 era:

2011 – Colorado 17, Utah 14. With USC ineligible for postseason play, the Utes could have qualified for the Pac-12 championship game, but lost to the lowly Buffaloes.

2012 – Arizona 34, Utah 24. Needing a win for bowl eligibility, the Utes were outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

2013 – Washington State 49, Utah 37. Needing a win for bowl eligibility, the Utes gave up two interception returns for touchdowns in the first quarter.

2014 – Arizona 42, Utah 10. Contending for the Pac-12 South title, the Utes allowed 520 total yards and went three-and-out on five of their first six drives.

2015 – Arizona 37, Utah 30 (2 OT). A fumble at midfield midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game led to overtime, and the No. 10 Utes lost to an Arizona team that finished 6-6.

UCLA 17, Utah 9. With the South title still available to them, the Utes settled for field goals after drives of 66, 72 and 71 yards and fumbled to end two other long possessions.

2016 – Oregon 30, Utah 28. The Utes again were in prime position in the South, but lost to the Ducks, who finished 4-8.

Colorado 27, Utah 22. The Utes kicked field goals on three second-half trips inside the Colorado 5-yard line. The Buffaloes became the fifth Pac-12 South member to win a division title.

2017 – Washington 33, Utah 30. The Utes missed a chance to upset the No. 16 Huskies, who scored 10 points in the final minute.

2018 – Washington 10, Utah 3. The Utes broke through with a division title, but lost in the Pac-12 championship game without allowing an offensive touchdown.