Gordon Monson: On history’s edge, with glory beckoning, Utah football suffers its worst loss at the worst time — ever

(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.

Just when it appeared that the Utes were on the verge of a historic season, they and their season were … history.

At least the historic part of it.

Inside of 60 brutal minutes at the Pac-12 championship game, extraordinary was majorly downgraded, suddenly and irrevocably Gone With the End, left in the vapor of three jarring touchdown runs, 208 rushing yards in total, by Oregon’s CJ Verdell, who — has anyone checked? — may be running, still.

The Utes will go to a bowl game, they will still take praise for a strong season, overall. They will be considered good. They’re almost always good. Good. Good. Good.

Good grief.

Great, though, left the building on Friday night, hauled out of Levi’s Stadium by the Ducks, led by Verdell, leaving behind the empty evidence of what happened — numbers on an unfavorable scoreboard that shone into the dark rainy night: Oregon 37, Utah 15.

Those numbers, instead of a championship spotlight, shined down on the Utes below and cursed them as they exited the field, hats hanging, proud but beaten. And hurt.

Rarely had good felt so bad.

“Obviously, tonight was a huge disappointment,” Kyle Whittingham said.

“We lost the battle in the trenches,” Zack Moss said. “… This one definitely hurts.”

This Utah team long ago had dialed in on a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl berth, and in more recent weeks, dreams of making the college football playoff. The Utes had played in a manner that matched their intentions.

Until Friday night.

They fell behind, 20-0, by the end of the first half, and couldn’t recover. Five times in those first two quarters, the Utes made it to the Oregon 40-yard line, and five times they didn’t get to the 30. It was as though there was an invisible forcefield blocking their path. They mounted a comeback that never fully took form in the second half.

As a result, those lofty Utah plans are dust now, relegating the Utes to the reward they have experienced so many times before — a bowl game only they care about.

That isn’t just a letdown, it’s an absolute cratering out. In a single game, they went from a position from which they were being considered the most talented Utah team of all time — that still might be true, regardless — and the best ever — that no longer applies — to being just another Utah team that showed phenomenal promise and then didn’t deliver.

That fate they did not envision for themselves.

The Utes arrived here primed for victory, having won eight straight games by the lopsided count of 308-76. The Ducks had outscored their league opponents by the count of 297-153, despite their recent loss to Arizona State, a defeat that had bumped them out of the CFP picture. But the Rose Bowl was never out of mind for the Ducks, and they kept that with them, mitigating the previous disappointment.

All told, Oregon gained 432 yards, Utah 309.

It was, indeed, a punch to the forehead the way the Ducks pushed aside Utah’s defense. But Oregon had a formidable weapon of its own — the most veteran offensive line in the country, a group that had started a collective total of 213 games.

And that front gave Ducks QB Justin Herbert just enough time to operate — he threw for 193 yards and a score — and Verdell room to run — he blistered the Utah defensive front.

On the flip side, Tyler Huntley could not find the efficient groove he’s possessed nearly every other week. He was sacked six times and intercepted twice. Moss did what he could, but was limited, although he managed 113 yards.

The Utes plainly could not control the ball the way they had in past games. They could not dominate the game the way they had.

Defeat was their reward.

As elevated as the opportunity was for the Utes, this might be the worst loss at the worst time of any in Utah football, ever. They were so close to doing what no Utes team had done — win a major conference championship. And then … the most deflating loss, not just of the season, but of many — any — seasons.

The pain and disappointment was etched all over their faces in the postgame, in a wicked brand they hoped would eventually fade.

In that sorry way, though, history was rediscovered, re-introduced, re-established, reinforced. A historic loss.

And the inexorable regret that comes with it.

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