Gordon Monson: Bruised and battered, Utah football can bounce back because ... it has no other choice

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham leads his team onto the field as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

Santa Clara, Calif.

Life is short, make it sweet.

That’s a line from a song sung by the band, Old Dominion.

And, lord knows, the Utes need to sing it now.

After what happened on Friday night in the Pac-12 title game, a contest that not only saw Utah end up on the short end of a lopsided score, but also tore away at the robes and knocked off the crown the Utes would have worn as league champions, they need some perspective.

They’re hurting right now.

And they should hurt.

They messed up. They weren’t themselves.

They are better than what they showed against Oregon, a high quality opponent to be sure and a worthy conference king now. Kyle Whittingham agreed that the Ducks out-Utah’ed the Utes in their North-versus-South battle. They didn’t just outscore them, they out-worked them, they out-muscled them, they shoved them back and punched them in the mouth and laughed at their pain.

They stopped Utah drives on fourth-and-short. They opened gaps for long gains along a formidable Ute defensive front.

They beat Utah at the very thing this program and this particular Utes team had hung their self-esteem on — power ball at the point of attack, on offense and especially on defense.

“We didn’t win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing,” Whittingham said. “Surprising, really.”

As enlightened as we all like to think high-level football is, it remains, at its core, a test of strong will and stronger physical engagement. That is the brand Utah football has built since entering the Pac-12, and, actually, well before they were invited into the league. Nobody punks the Utes, nobody slams a chair over their heads and stands over them, making goofy faces and mocking them.

And, yet, that’s what Oregon’s Ducks did at Levis Stadium.

“Quite frankly, I think maybe these guys all week long got a little bit tired of hearing we weren’t the more physical team,” Ducks coach Mario Cristobal said. “It gives you a little bit of an edge. These guys made up their mind they were going to establish the line of scrimmage. And they did.”

Said CJ Verdell, who ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns: “Definitely put a little chip on our shoulders. … Hearing they’re the most physical team in the Pac-12 made us want to come out here and work even harder.”

And the Utes felt that chip, that work.

“It sucks,” said Terrell Burgess, one of Utah’s seniors. “I mean, no one wants to lose. Nobody wants to lose any game. Nobody wants to lose a championship game.”

Not the way the Utes did.

Whittingham knew the Ducks had speed and talent, at the skill positions and along the fronts, both offensive and defensive. But he in no way expected the Ducks to roll up 239 rushing yards on his D, a unit that had allowed an average of just 56 per game heretofore. He did not anticipate his offensive line giving up six sacks, as Tyler Huntley was hurried and hit a whole lot more than that. He could not see Oregon doing to Utah what Utah usually does to its opponents — make them wish they had months ago spent more time in the weight room, slinging around kettlebells, throwing more plates on the bar, building usable mass on the road to becoming kings on the field.

But that’s what happened.

The Utes were manhandled — and they suffered the consequences, having their shot at the Rose Bowl taken from them in brutal fashion.

So, what happens next?

They will go to the Alamo Bowl, or some other bowl game that registers about two notches below what they had intended for themselves in a season that was as much a crescendo as a campaign. Comparing the Alamo to the Rose as a postseason prize is like comparing a dachshund to a doberman. It ain’t the same. It ain’t even close.

But it is what defeat has presented the Utes.

They had a bad night here. Maybe it is more than just that. Maybe Oregon really is 22 points better. But probably not. Either way, Whittingham said the Utes would have to come back again next year, and try again. Try to get this Pac-12 championship thing right.

It’s the only thing they can do now. Stare awhile into the abyss of what might have been, gather themselves, win whatever second-tier bowl they go to, say goodbye to the seniors, look forward to whatever comes next.

And hit the weight room hard, again and again. Life is short, do whatever they can to make it sweet, sweeter next time around.

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