Gordon Monson: The Utes made the right call in The Swamp, even without the Hollywood ending

Now Utah’s leading man has to help rewrite this season’s script, the Tribune columnist says.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws a pass to tight end Dalton Kincaid, front, during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

The script was written out, and Hollywood was calling Utah’s and, more specifically, Cam Rising’s name.

He is, after all, the Utes’ star and fully worthy of that designation.

You could hear it cutting all the way from the studios, across the country, through the thunderous crowd noise in Florida, around The Swamp.

Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam.

It was bigger than just the game, the half, the quarter, the closing moments, what with 1:25 left in Utah’s season opener against the Gators, the backstory trailing in reverse to January, when the Utes nearly beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

It had all been a set-up.

That’s when the narrative began, Utah football was going to be something incredible, something extraordinary this season. The Utes were ranked higher in the preseason than they’d ever been ranked at that juncture before. They were more than a dark horse, they were darlings, a College Football Playoff team. It was scribbled out right there.

And Saturday night, they followed that script straight on through … through to the 17-second mark of the fourth quarter.

That’s when Hollywood stopped calling and started bleeding (shoutout to Post Malone).

You saw it. That’s when Rising, Utah’s Gary Cooper, Utah’s Cary Grant, Utah’s Dwayne Johnson, Utah’s leading man, Utah’s difference-maker at quarterback, took the ball, trailing 29-26, and shepherded the Utes down the field to clutch victory and preserve and launch their dream season by beating an SEC team on its home field, not just at The Swamp, but in The Swamp.

John Wayne doesn’t lose at the end, neither does Jimmy Stewart or Clint Eastwood.

With the seconds churning off the clock, Rising went completion, deflected pass, completion, completion, timeout, completion, timeout, long keeper, completion, timeout, completion, incompletion, and then … and then … from the 6-yard line …

Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam.

No. No, no, no.

Henry Fonda tried to squeeze the ball between a couple of defenders into the hands of tight end Dalton Kincaid and … well, you know by now what happened.

The ball was picked and the story was wrecked, the game over.

“I’m not happy about it,” Rising said afterward.

“He’s our guy,” said Kyle Whittingham.

With nothing but promise and a playoff in front of them, starting with Southern Utah next week and San Diego State thereafter, continuing with a soft Pac-12 schedule that was most favorable to them, Hollywood punched the Utes in the throat.

They could have played it safe and settled for a game-tying field goal, and then hoped for the best in overtime, but Rising had already done the heavy lifting and that concession would have been improvisation, utterly off script.

This was signed and registered, going for glory, but glory didn’t cooperate.

And who could complain about what Rising did?

Without him, Hollywood never would have entered the picture. He is Utah’s centerpiece.

He played like it until that one mistake.

And in typical Utes fashion, he had rocksteady company around him. Brant Kuithe, Tavion Thomas, rough-and-rugged protection up front, but also a defense that crumbled a bit against SEC athletes across the way.

Let’s say it clearly here, Utah is far past moral victories. It’s a proud program that wants no part of any such thing. It wants wins. But anyone who watched this game could see that the Utes are every bit as much an SEC team as Florida is. In fact, if name marquee and market size and number of available TV sets weren’t such a huge part of mega-conference expansion, if it came down only to competitive toughness and verve, Utah should be in the SEC or the Big Ten.

That’s the way they play — with physical and psychological strength, with size and speed. Hope this doesn’t sound condescending in the shade of a loss, because that’s the opposite of the way it’s meant, Utah is a real football team, however you define that.

They led this opponent early, after being tied, they led again, they fell behind, they led again, they fell behind, they led again, they fell behind, and that’s what teed up that last drive, an opportunity to enhance the rest of the season.

There were vulnerabilities on display. That Utah defense had difficulty containing the Gators’ Anthony Richardson, a quarterback who is half Freightliner and half Ferrari. Kyle Whittingham has always thought the preferred type of quarterback is one who can chuck it and churn with it. His reasoning, he said, was because those are the hardest QBs to defend against. And Utah allowed Richardson three touchdowns on the ground, all of them significant in a tight game. He threw for 168 yards and ran for another 106.

Richardson had friends, too, such as running backs Montrell Johnson (75 yards) and Trevor Etienne (64). If that last name sounds familiar, perhaps you remember his brother, now playing in the NFL.

But the Utes, in their strange surroundings, with extreme stadium noise causing occasional communication problems at the line of scrimmage and heat and humidity steaming them on and off the field, matched the Gators point for point, yard for yard … right up until the final credits rolled.

The total offensive numbers went like this: Utah 446 yards, Florida 451.

Whittingham was displeased with his run defense, yielding 283 yards, which is a bloated number, certainly by Ute standards.

Utah fiddled-and-faddled around on attack at times, and Whittingham wanted to establish a more consistent run game in the second half. That was achieved, with Thomas rushing for 115 yards. Thomas did fall just short of a touchdown on 4th-and-goal at one juncture, and that stung the Utes, but somehow, it always seemed as though they would find a way to win this game.

Rising had much to do with that, throwing for 216 yards, one TD, and rushing for 91. His co-star, Kuithe, caught nine balls for 105 yards and a score.

None of it was enough to launch an incredible, extraordinary season. The Utes will win a whole lot of games, most of their games, maybe every game left on their schedule. That would be notable and really cool. If Hollywood has turned its back on them now, it’s up to them to rewrite the script, get a little luck, and make their story one of redemption.

Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam … Cam.

Maybe then Gary Cooper, John Wayne, The Rock, will ride — and Hollywood will call — again.

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