When Utah thumped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2008, it was a validation of the Utah football culture – recruit athletes with a chip on their shoulder, who had often been overlooked by bigger name programs. This included Eric Weddle, Sean Smith, Stevenson Sylverster, Brice McCain, Brian Johnson, Freddie Brown… the list was long. Utah was the master at identifying and developing potential.
Two years later we hit the jackpot, were invited to the PAC-12, and, based on how we did against P5 teams, felt like we could step in and compete. And we did… before hitting a couple of lean years.
So, how did things look before we got the PAC-12 and after we’d been in it a few years?
In the MWC, you could circle a few games a year that were truly critical, and the other games we damn well better win. Sometimes those MWC wins were ugly, but we generally took care of business.
In the PAC-12, if you weren’t playing close to your potential – and denying the other team the same – you had a less than 50% chance of winning the game, regardless of how “bad” the team was. The margin for error was far more narrow.
In a practice, Urban Meyer told the 2004 Utes that our Ones could play with anyone in the nation, but the 2s and 3s were what separated (then) BCS teams from non-BCS league schools. That was coach-speak, but Meyer was absolutely right.
7 years later, we learned that getting up to play every team, every week, was not easy. We could coast in the MWC for many games, using our talent differential to win games where we weren’t operating at max efficiency.
Defensively, we could use the classic formula started by Fred Whittingham to get your best athletes on defense, where with an intense effort they could get off the field, get rested, and be ready to contain the opposing offense again. This defense was augmented by a run-heavy offense. Big Fred once observed that the best type of offense to compliment the Utah defense might be the Wishbone run by Air Force. Grind it out, eat the clock, keep the defense fresh…and rack up the wins.
In the PAC that formula was tested by offenses with quarterbacks and receivers who were good enough to play on Sundays, and against us they would consistently move the chains, no matter how intense our defensive effort was, how much we rotated the DL to stay fresh. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion laid a painful lesson on the Utes in SLC, doing a max-protect blocking scheme to give long routes time to develop, and getting the ball to Brandin Cooks over & over, in double coverage, dropping dimes and letting the NFL-bound Cooks make plays that just never happened in the MWC.
Every week presented a team that had players we used to try and recruit – and sometimes got – but also included coaching staffs who knew how to negate your strengths and exploit your weaknesses.
Don’t get me wrong – Utah did reasonably well in the PAC, even if everything was much tougher. We dug out from a couple of sobering 5-7 seasons, and step-by-step, improved, finally getting to the championship game, back to back.
Whittingham has matured as a head coach, becoming the longest tenured HC in our new league. His work ethic & step-by-step approach has resulted in a steady climb up the ladder after the first three years.
Are we “there” yet? Time will tell, every year in the past 6 or so has revealed new bricks in the wall to be inserted, and step-by-step, we’ve been slowly building, not taking anything for granted. Hell no. Anyone in this league can beat you, if you’re not on your A-game, or at least your B+ game. Anything lower than that, you’re gonna get beat.
The 2021 Utes are still very young – they got out of the abbreviated 2020 season exactly what they needed: practice and game snaps for a lot of very young, very talented players. With more talent coming in, do we have enough to make that last step and achieve a PAC championship?
– Mark Oberg