The Utes are entering their 11th season as members of the PAC-12 and before looking ahead to the 2021 season, a look back at the highs and lows of the prior 10 seasons is appropriate. I’m certain that each of us have memories of each season, but we can’t forget our inaugural season in 2011. The Utes approached their first PAC-12 football schedule with the high hopes of making a big splash. Featuring a defense loaded with future NFL players in Star Lotulelei, Derrick Shelby, Eric Rowe, Trevor Reilly and Brian Blechen, the Utes could go toe-to-toe with anyone on their schedule. Norm Chow began his lone season as our Offensive Coordinator with a veteran QB in Jordan Wynn, shifty running back John White, and a solid supporting cast featuring Devonte Christopher, Dres Andersen, Luke Mathews, Reggie Dunn and Dallin Rogers. The Utes believed they had enough offensive firepower to favorably compete in a stacked conference.
The schedule makers gave the Utes no breaks as they drew USC on the road in game 2 of the season. The Utes played a solid game and, in the final seconds, had a chance to tie the game and send it to OT with a long field goal. The kick, however, was blocked and scooped for 6 and the Utes lost 23-14. After demolishing BYU 54-10 in a game that has provided plenty of entertainment for Ute fans over the years, the Utes prepared to host Washington in the first PAC-12 home game. The euphoria of that first home game came crashing down on the opening kickoff as Ryan Lacy fumbled the ball close to the Utah Endzone, which was returned for a touchdown. Although the Utes marched down and tied the score at 7, from there they were outscored 24 to 7 and not only lost the game, but also lost QB Jordan Wynn to a season ending shoulder injury. The Utes would go on to lose their next two PAC 12 games to Arizona State and Cal. It was clear to those watching that while the Utes had the defense to compete, the area where they did not measure up was the offensive line. The Ute offensive linemen did not look like the offensive linemen from USC, Washington, ASU or Cal. The Utes finished the season running up 4 wins in a row against Oregon St., Arizona, UCLA and Washington State. They entered the season finale at home against a 2-10 Colorado team with a chance to win the right to play in the inaugural championship game. Instead, the Utes were flat and played perhaps their worst game of the year and lost 14-17. The Utes finished the 2011 season against Georgia Tech in an exciting come from behind 30-27 win in the Sun Bowl.
If the Utes held their own in 2011, they regressed in 2012 and 2013. Quarterback Jordan Wynn was lost to a career ending injury in a controversial overtime game at Utah State, and while they would bounce back the next week with a 24-21 victory over then 25th ranked BYU, they finished with a 3-6 record in the PAC and missed a bowl game for the first time in many seasons. The 2013 season played out much like the 2012 with the again not reaching a bowl game and going 2-7 in the PAC. Early season wins against Utah State and BYU and a dramatic win against No. 5 Stanford, the only real bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season, were not enough to stop fans and commentators from wondering whether Kyle Whittingham would be able to keep his job. 2014 was somewhat of a bounce back year for the Utes. An early season triumph on the road against Michigan was quickly forgotten the next week at home against Washington St., when the Utes jumped out to a 24-7 halftime lead only to have the Cougars roar back and beat the lethargic Utah team 28-27. Consecutive road wins against No. 8 UCLA and Oregon St. resulted in the Utes being ranked No. 19 and hosting 20th ranked USC. The game was an absolute slugfest and Utah pulled out the win with a memorable touchdown pass from Travis Wilson to Kaelin Clay with 8 seconds left in the game. The Utes went to ASU on a high but could not pull out the win in a hard- fought overtime loss to the Devils. The Utes followed that up with a loss to Oregon in the Kaelin Clay “take the ball all the way over the goal line” game. The Utes finished the season ranked No. 21 with a win over Colorado St. in the Las Vegas Bowl.
In 2015, The Utes took another step forward, finishing the season with a win over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl and a No. 17 ranking. The season started in dramatic fashion with an exciting win over the Jim Harbaugh led Michigan in the home opener. The Utes throttled Oregon in Eugene 62-20 and entered the game at USC with a No. 3 ranking. The wheels fell off in a 24-42 loss to the Trojans, but the Utes bounced back to beat Oregon State and Washington before disappointing losses at Arizona and at home against UCLA. While the bowl win over BYU was welcome, 2015 left a bad taste in the mouths of coaches, players, and many fans. The Utes knew that they had allowed a great season to turn into only a good season by not playing up to their potential in disappointing late season losses to UCLA and Arizona.
2016 was very much like 2015. Although the Utes ended the season 9-4, ranked No. 23, with a win over USC and a bowl win over Indiana, the Utes lost some very winnable games against Cal, Washington and Oregon. At Cal, the Utes had innumerable tries inside the 10 to win the game but failed to do so. On the final try, Isaac Asiata pulled, and freshman Zack Moss had an open route to the end zone only to cut back and get hit short of the end zone. Moss would go on to become one of the great running backs in Utah Football History, but clearly failed to do what he was coached to do on the final play of the game. The Utes and the then No. 4 ranked Washington Huskies battled back and forth deep into the 4th quarter. Washington’s punt returner, Dante Pettis, scored on a 58-yard punt return to give the Huskies the lead with 3:25 left in the game. Utah players and fans saw several missed calls on the return and left the field upset and were greatly disappointed with the outcome. The Utes had everything going for them in the final home game of the season against Oregon. Oregon was a bit down and starting the young and mostly unknown freshman QB Justin Herbert. The Utes took the lead 28-24 with 2 minutes remaining in the game only to watch Herbert guide the Ducks down the field. Herbert connected with future Ute Darren Carrington in the back of the south end zone to give the Ducks the lead with one second left on the clock.
2017 was a season of transition. Kyle Whittingham fired longtime assistant and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and hired Troy Taylor, famous for high octane offenses at Eastern Washington. In somewhat of a surprise, sophomore Tyler Huntley beat out returning starter Troy Williams in the battle to be starting QB. Unfortunately for Huntley and the Utes, he injured his shoulder in the fourth game of the season against Arizona. Williams played well in a home loss against Stanford and then had the Utes in position to win at USC but came up just short on a 2-point conversion as time expired. Ute fans will clearly remember that Williams missed a wide-open Darren Carrington, who was running along the back of the end zone. Ultimately, Williams failed to make it to the end zone himself. Huntley came back to start the remainder of the season, but never returned to his early season form and the Utes went 3-4 with a bowl win over West Virginia to finish the season unranked at 7-5.
The Utes started slowly in 2018, going 2-2 with losses to Washington and Washington State. The Utes made some key changes on offense, with Zack Moss producing and Tyler Huntley getting hot. The Utes scored 40 plus points four games in a row with wins over No. 14 Stanford, Arizona, USC, and UCLA, rising to No. 16 in the polls. They were then faced with a showdown at Arizona State, who historically had been a tedious foe for Utah. The Utes lost to ASU that day and also lost Huntley for the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone. With the season looking as if it was headed down the drain, freshman QB Jason Shelley led the Utes to impressive wins over Oregon, Colorado and to their first ever PAC 12 south championship. With the championship settled, Utah hosted BYU in the final game of the regular season. Trailing 27-14 entering the 4th quarter, running back Armand Shyne scored 2 touchdowns and Shelley added a final touchdown on a 33-yard scamper and the Utes had an improbable victory. Unfortunately for the Utes, the season ended with a disappointing loss to Washington in the PAC 12 Championship. The game was a great defensive struggle with the teams tied 3-3 late in the 3rd quarter. Jason Shelley threw a beautiful pass to Siaosi Mariner that went in and out of his hands and into the hands of a Washington defender for a pick six, which ended up being the difference maker. Utah received an invite to their first Holiday Bowl in San Diego. The game ended up being a tale of two halves. The first half saw Utah jump out to a 20 – 3 lead only to see them give up four turnovers and 28 unanswered points in the second half. Once again, the potential great season ended with losses and disappointment for the Ute faithful.
The Utes entered the 2019 campaign in uncharted waters as the favorite to win the PAC 12 South. Offseason changes had resulted in former OC Andy Ludwig returning to the Hill and expectations were high with seniors Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss recovered from injuries and anxious to get the Utes over the hump. The season started as expected with 3 out of conference wins leading up to the USC game. Statistically, the Utes beat the Trojans with 457 yards to 381, but the Utes failed to convert on several attempts in the redzone and fumbled away a potential go-ahead touchdown right before halftime. The 10th ranked Utes ended up losing 30-23 to the 24th ranked Trojans. From there, the Utes rattled off 8 consecutive wins leading to a South Division championship for a second straight year, a No. 5 ranking, and a matchup with No. 13 ranked Oregon in the championship game. A win against Oregon would give the Utes a shot at a berth in the College Football Playoffs or at a minimum, a place in the “Grandaddy of them all”, the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be as Oregon physically manhandled the Utes on both sides of the line of scrimmage and left with a 37-15 victory. The Utes would follow up that miserable performance with a surprising and incredibly disappointing 38-10 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Looking back at the past 10 seasons, I can say without reservation that I have never enjoyed Utah football more. Playing quality teams week in and week out has been exciting, and although the Utes have yet to finish a season in the way I would have wanted, they have demonstrated toughness, heart, determination, and grit. I remain hopeful that the Utes will continue to have a program worthy of supporting and that they will blast through the finish line as opposed to coming up short.