It wasn’t that Kyle Whittingham looked angry, he just didn’t appear elated. Relieved is likely the only emotion he, and the collective Utah Utes fan base, could feel.
The Utah Utes coach had just watched his team turn it over six times against its biggest rival, BYU – and survive with a 20-19 win in the 97th Holy War, stuffing Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill on a 2-point conversion that decided the game.
“I told them after the game we dodged a bullet because you’re not going to win many games against quality opponents turning the ball over six times,” Whittingham said. “It’s just not going to happen.
“My stomach was churning pretty good tonight. I was thinking on the sideline, ‘Am I getting an ulcer?'”
His Utes certainly gave him plenty of reason to get one. Not that this is anything unusual – Utah has never exactly been a model of offensive responsibility – but Saturday was something out of the norm even for the Utes.
After an offseason of battling to fill the starting quarterback spot vacated by Travis Wilson, Troy Williams threw three interceptions. Running back Joe Williams was yanked after fumbling on the second possession of the game, just one of six (three lost) on the day for Utah.
“If you had told me they’d turn it over six times and win the game, I would have said you were crazy,” Hill said.
Not crazy. Just Utah. On the season, they fumbled 1.8 times per game, good for 109th in the country. Their 0.8 interceptions per game put them at 62nd.
If Whittingham should be used to anything by now, it’s watching his team turn the ball over – but winning nonetheless. The Utes survived five games in 2015 despite scoring 30 or fewer points. This season’s offensive performances – admittedly with a small sample size – augurs a similar year ahead.
While their 24-0 victory over Southern Utah in the season opener was never really in doubt, it was just as shaky as the Utes’ nail-biter over BYU.
“We’re kind of bittersweet because we know that performance won’t be good enough down the road,” Whittingham said afterwards. “We’ve got to get better… We never really were not in control of the game, but we never really had complete control of the game. It was tougher to score than I anticipated it would be.”
It’s to be expected. Along with Troy Williams under center, Utah features an entirely new-look offense, with new skill position players across the board. As it did last year, this type of inconsistent offensive play will work for now. Utah’s defense is just that good. Even if Southern Utah is an FCS team, a shutout is a shutout. And while BYU is no Oregon, holding the Cougars to 19 points should be enough even for Utah’s mercurial offense to consistently win. For as bad as Utah’s offense was, the defense still forced three turnovers and provided the game-winning stop.
It won’t be a pretty season for Utah, but it rarely is. When Utah wins this season – which it will quite regularly, given the downturn the collective Pac-12 has taken – don’t expect raucous celebrations. Just relief.
And maybe an ulcer here and there.