The Utah Utes and head coach Kyle Whittingham have epitomized their Pac-12 existence the past two weeks.
At times excellent and endowed with a winning edge, the Utes and their coach are just as often frustrating and feeble. One moment, the Utes inspire enthusiasm and the belief that Pac-12 riches are just around the corner. The next moment, Utah elicits pronounced exasperation.
It’s what this team does.
One week, the quarterback leads a bold comeback over USC at home. The next week, that same quarterback misses a pass at the goal line in the final 10 seconds of regulation.
Travis Wilson, Kendal Thompson, Jordan Wynn, Troy Williams — it all blends together at some point.
Holding the California Golden Bears’ high-powered offense to just 28 points on Saturday evening in Berkeley represented a strong effort by Whittingham’s defense. However — as has happened all too many times in this era of Utah football — the sons of Salt Lake City couldn’t manage one Whit(t) of offense when they really needed it.
The story is painfully familiar for the Utes and their fans: Just when a Pac-12 South title seemed more likely than not — or at least more realistic than before a season began — Utah took a step back, forfeiting the leverage it had earned the week before.
Since the Pac-12 was created — giving birth to a split-division conference format — the Pac-12 South champion has suffered at least two league losses in every season except 2013, when Arizona State went 8-1 in the league. Winning the South doesn’t require perfection; the division usually is a series of backyard brawls in which a 7-2 record is good enough to advance to the conference title game in early December.
The problem for Utah: It usually finds a way to lose a third conference game.
Losing to the Los Angeles schools and an upper-tier North Division opponent will happen, but all other South teams have to go through that gauntlet in most seasons. The kind of game a Pac-12 South champion can’t lose is to a mid-tier team.
That’s California — better than Texas but worse than Arizona State and San Diego State. Utah must face UCLA and Washington before this Pac-12 season was done. The Utes realistically could have finished 7-2 in the league by losing to the Bruins and Huskies while taking care of everyone else.
That plan’s gone now.
Troy Williams — so gallant and a model of surprising technical precision a week ago against USC — lacked the same crispness eight days later in Strawberry Canyon. Utah ran 97 plays to Cal’s 49, limiting the extent to which the “Bear Raid” offense could dictate the tempo of Utes-Bears. Nevertheless, Williams and his offensive teammates couldn’t crack the end zone on several chances in the final 30 seconds of regulation.
Utah was so close to forging the kind of win — one week after the USC victory — which suggests that a team has fully matured. However, the Pac-12 figures to be a dogfight conference every week. Close games should become the norm; standing on the wrong side of the very thin line between agony and ecstasy shouldn’t give a team immunity from criticism.
When watching Utah forge its masterful comeback against USC, it was impossible to not admire Kyle Whittingham and what he’s achieved in Salt Lake City.
When comprehending the significance of Saturday’s loss to Cal, it is similarly impossible to ignore the reality that the Utes — still without a Pac-12 South title — have left something on the table over the past few years…
… and are on their way to doing the same thing again, unless they can finally change their stripes.