Gordon Monson: Utah football has to get its stars back if greatness is its goal. Toughness alone is good, but not enough.

The Utes have been both unlucky and undefeated — but something has to give.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) and Utah defensive tackle Junior Tafuna (58) celebrate after Ellis's sack on UCLA Bruins quarterback Dante Moore (3), in the final Bruin drive in the 4th quarter, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

I really wanted to complain about the misfortunes dumped all over the Utes on Saturday, few of them their own fault.

The poor, poor, disadvantaged Utes.

You gotta admit, you wanted to, too.

We all did.

So, I will, even in the grille of a remarkable, memorable defensive performance. “As fine a defensive performance as maybe I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Kyle Whittingham said. “… We have no choice but to have resolve. … This team is tough as nails.”

That, it is, tougher even than it is unfortunate. Imagine if fortune were to smile again on these guys, who are more than worthy of it.

Facing heretofore undefeated UCLA on Saturday, the Utes were all dinged up, all dinged down, Whittingham setting the tone by saying he’d never seen anything like the injuries stacked within and against his battered-but-not-beaten team. Lingering injuries to his stars, fresh ones cropping up in a whole bunch of other notable contributors. What is the exact number, 15 or 50 of ‘em?


Gone With the Bend.

Speaking of classic films, watching Utah play without quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe has its scant advantages, such as the emerging promise that comes by way of the dudes playing behind them. That part is encouraging for the Utes, sort of. The discouragement comes in the cloaked mystery of wondering how good this team might be were it fully complemented. It’s in that mix of fun and frustration that comes the realization that for all the wins, four straight out of the gate now, watching Utah football this season is and remains like watching “The Godfather” without Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.

It’s kind of good. It’s just not the same.

Those words are written with a wee feeling of guilt. There’s no disrespect intended for the guys filling in. They are what they are. They’re still worth watching. Unbeaten is unbeaten. Praise is in order for the Utes’ ability to climb up and over adversity. They’ve had their moments, a thousand of them on defense, plus those victories — and you’d figure audiences would be used to it by now, but …


What are we missing? Missing out on?

Stars are stars and with them unavailable, real difference-makers tantalizingly hanging around as they continue to heal from ACL injuries suffered last season, and, in Rising’s case, fully able to practice but not play, it’s all a big tease.

The quarterback warmed up on Saturday at Rice-Eccles, and next thing, as had been reported just before, he would be and was in street clothes.

So it is, the stars are here. They’re not here. They’re there. They’re not there. They might play. They might not play. They’re getting close. They’re not close enough. They want to play. They can’t play. Not yet. It’s up to the doctors to decide. Every week, it’s Doctor, doctor, gimme the news …

OK, enough of that for a bit, anyway. As was demonstrated on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Utes are a good team, even under siege, and looking to be something more. In a game that was nothing short of perfect on defense, but severely flawed on attack, they went ahead and handled UCLA in their conference opener by the count of 14-7. Replacement quarterback Nate Johnson managed his business, barely, against a Bruin defense that after three games was rated in the same neck of the woods as Utah’s resistance, each among the NCAA’s top 25 in the category of total defense.

With the Bruins averaging just shy of four sacks a game thus far, it was clear they would do what every team should do against an opposing QB — pressure him, give him the creeps, make him second-guess every initial guess.

That happened in both directions over long stretches of Saturday’s game, the defenses trying to answer one another. At the end, only one had the ultimate answer. You-Know-Who.

On the first play from scrimmage, Utah’s D stood up big-time with an interception of UCLA quarterback Dante Moore, Karene Reid taking the pick straightway into the end zone. The rest of the half may have set offensive football back a hundred years, passing proficiency proving nearly absent. Whittingham turned to what he was predisposed to do a decade or so ago under any and all circumstances — run the football. It wasn’t attractive, but with the lead, it worked. When Johnson hit back-back-up tight end Landen King on a short throw into the end zone, just before the half, Utah’s 14-0 lead seemed like it was 400-zip.

It wasn’t just that the Bruins couldn’t score, they couldn’t move the ball. Nobody does that to a Chip Kelly offense, but Utah, nobody’s nobody, did.

It got the job done, even with more adversity flying at the Utes, what with running back Ja’Quinden Jackson getting injured and sent out early. And defensive tackle Aliki Vimahi being tossed for targeting later.

It mattered not.

UCLA mustered a score with 3:39 left in the game, but that was it. Nothing more. The Ute defense shut the Bruins down on their last possession, with a chance to tie the score. Three sacks closed the deal.

“The Godfather” will always be great for having had Brando and Pacino in starring roles. But plugging in … oh, I dunno … DiCaprio and Downey, or maybe even a couple of B-listers, wouldn’t have been completely damaging, not with a story like that.

We’ll wait then on these Utes to see how great they and their story can be if and when the front-liners get back. Until that happens, good is good enough, just as it was against the Bruins at sunny Rice-Eccles on Saturday.

They’ll not sleep with the fishes, but they will take the cannoli.

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