Gordon Monson: With no championship hopes left, Utah has something even more important to play for

The Utes haven’t given up during a difficult season — and they shouldn’t now with two games left.

Utah running back Sione Vaki, right, scores a touchdown in front of Washington safety Vincent Nunley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Not to get too esoteric here, since we’re talking about a college football game, after all. But it was Paulo Coelho, author of “The Alchemist,” who said in the back half of a quote: “… Everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

That quote came to mind smack dab in the middle of Utah’s wild battle with Washington on Saturday at Husky Stadium, a game that depending on its outcome would turn those words one way or the other.

They could refer to Utah losing for the third time this season, the Utes having already fallen to Oregon State and Oregon in previous weeks. Or it could reference what somehow, some wacky way still remained on the table for Utah this season — a third straight Pac-12 championship.

Too bad for the Utes, it turned out to be the former, not the latter, their third loss, their third time was anything but a charm.

No. It was disappointment dressed out as defeat. It was pain in the form of one more loss. A helluva loss against an undefeated outfit, but a loss nonetheless. It was what Kyle Whittingham called a “tough loss.” It was another setback at the hands of a quality team. A 35-28 punch to the gut that erased every good bit of what was left over from last week’s 52-point crushing of Arizona State.

That lopsided win over an inferior opponent is not what the Utes measure themselves by, not anymore. They gauge themselves on whether they hoist trophies, and the realization that Coelho’s words cut both ways, this time into them, not away from them, brought no relief.

Any football titles the Utes win moving forward will have to happen in some other year, inside some other conference, first the Big 12 and thereafter … well, who knows?

And so, the team that had made both a name and an identity for itself by staring straight into the teeth of adversity over the previous two seasons, facing down all manner of difficulties to win championships, now suffers the wrath of that hardship and its backlash.

Whittingham knows the score — up on the board and in the team’s infirmary. Injuries with which the Utes have been plagued this season will garner for this Utah iteration absolutely no sympathy. None at all. He’s said that a hundred times. But on account of the way the Utes had clawed back in recent seasons to find victory was the best hope for them to do it once more. The Huskies stood in their way.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) reacts with offensive lineman Falcon Kaumatule (59) and tight end Miki Suguturaga (47) after a touchdown against Washington during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

What was left of that hope wasn’t confidently found in Utah’s leftover talent. And there’s a chance that even if the Utes had been fully complemented with all their players, including a certain star quarterback and star tight end, among other dinged major contributors, it wouldn’t have been enough to overcome opponents like the Ducks, who rolled Utah on its home field, and the Huskies, who barely escaped on Saturday.

Some optimism in the run-up had stirred by way of the Ute defense, a group usually sturdy enough to give Utah more than half a chance to win. And that was the challenge, the showdown against Washington. Would the explosive and powerful UDub offense, led by its Heisman-contending quarterback, overwhelm that resistance in similar fashion to what had occurred against Oregon two weeks prior?

It would not, as it turned out.

Everything the Huskies got against Utah was hard-earned.

Michael Penix found a way to lead his team to victory, but his performance was roughed up by the Utes, who pressured him enough to make him seem uncomfortable, out of rhythm, out of sorts, at least at times. He still threw for 332 yards and 2 touchdowns, but completed only 24 of 42 passes. It’ll be left to voters to decide whether that showing added to his Heisman pursuit or subtracted from it. By comparison, Utah’s Bryson Barnes threw for 267 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

The problem for Barnes and his team was he got 238 of his passing yards and both of his scoring throws in the first half, just 29 yards and no points in the second. The offense getting shut down and shut out in the third and fourth quarters doomed the Utes.

There were a few glimmers that in the wake of Utah putting 55 points on Arizona State that the offense could make some hay against a Husky defense that had shown vulnerability on certain occasions in past games.

Um … negatory. Not here, not now, not when it mattered most.

In the first half, Utah and Washington played ping-pong, the Huskies scoring, the Utes scoring, the Huskies scoring, the Utes scoring, the Huskies, the Utes, the Huskies, the Utes.

In the second, it was the Huskies scoring, the Huskies scoring, the Huskies scoring. The Utes couldn’t even take advantage of a Washington interception that would have been a pick-6 had the Husky defender not inexplicably dropped the ball in celebration at the 1-yard line, before he crossed the goal line. The Utes covered the ball, but on the next play, Ja’Quinden Jackson was tackled in the end zone for a safety.

Near the end, when Washington had a short field goal to put the game wholly out of reach, and its kicker drove the ball straight into Ute defenders who didn’t so much block the attempt as much as get drilled by it, Utah had one last chance with a buck-38 remaining on the clock to drive 82 yards to tie the score.

That possession went like this: Barnes incompletion. Barnes incompletion. Barnes completion to Jackson for no gain. Barnes desperation heave that was intercepted.

Game over.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, left, reacts to a pass interference call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

What did and does all of the above mean for Utah football moving forward, with two more league games ahead — against Arizona on the road and Colorado at home?

It means the Utes could finish their regular season at 7-5, 8-4 or 9-3, and there’s an obvious wide gap between those marks.

It means they won’t defend their title in the conference championship game. It means they won’t get another shot in Pasadena. It means they’ll go to a bowl game far beneath in pomp and prestige what the Utes and their fans have grown accustomed to. It also means there’s yet something to prove, something left for which to play. Something significant.

It’s found inside the answer to this question: Will adversity really have its way with a program that has spit in misfortune’s face the past couple of seasons? Will Utah do something it hasn’t allowed itself to even think about as a possibility in recent years — collapse and capsize?

Losing Rose Bowls to strong opponents after thrilling championship runs is one thing, dropping four out of five games down the stretch, or three of five is another. It sounds strange to say it, but Arizona is good. That’s a threat to dowse, a road challenge to overcome. Colorado is … is … is … loud.

With no meaningful trophy to win, no title to take or defend, Utah will have to uncover some other motivation now. And this is it: With three defeats already in their pocket, but a nine-spot to gain in the win column, that’s hardly fool’s gold. Yeah, it would be ground yielded to the aforementioned adversity, but not all that much. It would not give to hardship, to misfortune what hardship and misfortune want most — revenge.

If the Utes finish 9-3, that would be a mere nod, slight acquiescence. Decent, venerable ones at that.

The first part of Coelho’s quote?

“Everything that happens once will never happen again. …”

Suffering what seemed like a thousand meaningful injuries this season will likely never happen again, regardless of what happened twice — against Oregon State and Oregon — and a third time — against Washington. Considering Utah’s circumstances, there’s no dishonor in taking a hit from adversity, even having a crown knocked off its head, all without weak capitulation, without quitting.

With their name, their game, and their identity at stake, that’s what the Utes have yet to play for, have to live up to, still.