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An Appreciation of Utah Football’s Greatest Skill

The Utes mastered one skill this season in a way few others could.

Oregon v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Well Utah’s regular season is over. Of course you already knew that because you are probably smarter than me, and also because the Pac-12 Championship is being played on Friday and Utah isn’t taking part in it. A 1-3 finish handed Colorado the South Division and now the Utes are the last team in the South to not earn a berth in the conference championship. Instead, the Utes earned an 8-4 record that will probably get them an invite to the Sun Bowl or Foster Farms Bowl. At least that means there won’t be another trip to the (mumbles bad words like “freaking” or “gosh darn”) Las Vegas Bowl for the third year in a row.

But this isn’t a morbid article meant to mourn a Utah season that didn’t live up to early season hype. You could have read those last year, or the year before that, or the year… you get it. I’m here to appreciate the skill Utah mastered over the course of the season. A skill that no one could execute quite as successfully and consistently as the Utes managed to. The Utes’ most impressive skill this season was playing to the exact same level as their opponent’s game in and game out.

Have you ever tried to play an NCAA Football video game (R.I.P.) against a friend? The first step to starting any game is to select your teams. You, in the spirit of competitiveness and sportsmanship, will select a slightly above average team like Kansas State. Your friend, in the spirit of being an awful person, will select Alabama. This will test your friendship, but you understand that everyone makes mistakes, and you can’t change them all at once, so you let it slide. Thankfully, EA Sports recognized that many people have bad friends who would pick the Crimson Tide, so they tried to save some friendships. There’s a button you can press on the game that will make the teams perfectly even. One person may choose Georgia State, a team with an overall of 60, and the other person might pick Alabama, who has an overall of 99 but secretly it’s infinity. That doesn’t make for a very good matchup unless one person is really terrible. However, with one quick press of the Even Teams Button, suddenly the Panthers become completely equal to the Crimson Tide in every aspect of the game. The player using Alabama would no longer be able to dominate like a proper Nick Saban team. I’m sure Bama fans loved this feature.

If only you could do that with life. Wouldn’t that be incredible if your favorite team could play an even matchup against any opponent? Well if your team plays in the Pac-12, you’re in luck, because Utah is the Even Teams Button if it came to life and played in a Power 5 conference.

Looking back on the Utes season, this is very clearly the case. If you look at the games Utah played against Pac-12 opponents and BYU, the Utes played ten games. Eight of those games were decided by one score or less. The only anomalies were the games Utah played against the Arizona schools, but let’s be real, not even a magical force that makes everyone equal could save those teams this year.

In the other eight games though, each game was essentially a coin flip. And Utah played them exactly that way, going 4-4 in those remaining games. It’s hard not marvel at the team’s ability to never be able to pull away or fall too far behind.

I did a quick evaluation of each team Utah played to one score and either ranked them equal, superior, or inferior to Utah. This subjective ranking, that I spent less than a minute on, was based on talent level, final record and expectations for the season. This is how the teams stacked out:

Superior: Washington, USC

Equal: Colorado, BYU (I needed a second team here don’t hate me)

Inferior: Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Oregon State,

Now let’s look at Utah’s record when playing these teams:

Superior: 1-1

Equal: 1-1

Inferior 2-2

The Utes basically unlocked a code that allows them to go .500 against every opponent difficulty. Jeff Fisher couldn’t be prouder.

There’s been a lot of finger pointing going around Utah fans as to why the Utes couldn’t keep up with their 5-0 start. Most of the blame was directed at the red zone offense, though people also called out the play calling, the defense, and the coaching staff in general. All of those arguments have their merits, but if you look at the losses, they just show that Utah found the perfect way to lose to each individual team.

Let’s start with the Utes’ first loss of the season, Cal. The Utes held a high powered Cal offense to 28 points, outgained the Golden Bears on offense, had no turnovers, and held the ball for 42 minutes in the game. An uniformed observer would assume the Utes won by double digits. Instead, the Utes left at least 14 points on the board in the red zone against the 119th ranked red zone defense and couldn’t score on three plays from the 2 yard line against the 127th (out of 128) rushing defense in the country. Somehow, Utah made Cal look good at the areas of football where they were worse than nearly everyone else in the country. It doesn’t make sense, nor should it.

None of Utah’s other losses make much more sense either. The Washington loss is the most defensible, as Washington was clearly the better team. However, the Huskies have shown that a strong defensive line can shut down their rushing attack the way USC did. Utah’s generally fearsome line gave Myles Gaskin 7 yards per carry and allowed 200 yards on the ground.

It just keeps going and going. Against Oregon, another abysmal defense, the Utes struggled again. Oregon gives up 280 pass yards a game, Utah got 235. The Ducks allow 246 yards a game on the ground, the Utes put up 215. Let’s do one more: Oregon allows 41 points per game, Utah scored all of 28.

Colorado? I think this tweet sums it up pretty well.

Utah had their worst red zone performance of the season, and that’s saying something. The Utes made four straight trips to the red zone to start the second half of the game; they came away with 9 points.

Even though the losses hurt the fans, I think we should find a way to be impressed with the creativity in which Utah lost games this season. I also think we need to take a moment to appreciate the way in which Utah managed to win games that should have never been close in the first place.

UCLA wants to throw the ball on you 70 times in a game? Utah counters by giving up three touchdown plays of 40 or more yards and only records 2 sacks the entire game. Oregon State can only score 14 points against a dominant performance by the Utah defense? Troy Williams answers by only completing 4 passes for 43 yards. BYU for some reason lets Taysom Hill throw the ball and they turn the ball over three times? That’s nothing, the Utes decide to turn it over six times.

I’m still looking for the common theme that shows where it went wrong for Utah this season and I can’t find one that truly explains why Utah can’t win games in any way that isn’t stress-inducing to watch.

Even if you want to point to the Arizona games as examples in which Utah won pretty easily, it still wasn’t actually that easy. Utah only led Arizona State by 2 with 12 minutes left in the game, and they actually trailed Arizona (Arizona!) by 2 at halftime in Salt Lake City. It can’t ever be easy with Utah.

Las Vegas also had a hard time getting a handle on what the Utes were doing. In the eight games we’ve been looking at, when Utah was favored, they went 1-4 against the spread. The only time Utah won by more than they were expected to was against USC. The Utes were favored by 3 points in that game; they won by 4 points. The Utes almost never lived up to expectations this season when they were considered to be the better team in a game.

However, if you made the Utes an underdog, they almost always outperformed expectations. Granted, outperforming expectations didn’t always translate into wins, but the team did manage to keep up with superior teams. Utah was an underdog in three games this season, and they covered the spread in all three of the games. Utah won outright against UCLA, and only lost by 7 and 5 respectively to Washington and Colorado when Vegas predicted they would lose by double digits.

Covering the spread is no consolation for losing the games, but it just continues to illustrate that Utah almost always finds a way to match their opponent, for better or for worse. Maybe what that means is that the Utes’ ultimately played to the exact level that could be expected for a team with the level of talent it had.

Colorado is an interesting comparison for the Utes. Colorado only played in four games in which the final score was within one possession. They went 3-1 in those games. The difference between Utah and Colorado was the Buffalo didn’t let inferior teams hang around, which in turn didn’t give them a chance to win games. Colorado didn’t lose a single game to a lesser opponent. Their two losses were to Michigan and USC, and only a diehard (see: delusional) Buffs fan would argue Colorado’s talent is superior to either of those teams.

Luck and skill are both important in a college football season, but if you execute the way you’re supposed to, luck becomes a lot less of a factor. Utah just made too many mistakes against teams of lesser skill. They played down to opponents, and in turn some of those opponents made them pay, and the rest came very close to it.

After all of this, the only conclusion that can be reached is that Utah football made no sense this year. Hunter Dimick is really good, Mitch Wishnowsky will probably win the Ray Guy award, and Andy Phillips got to make a lot of field goals. Everything else the team did was basically like the T.V. show Chopped. Each week, Utah would open their basket and find that during that particular game, they had to win with less than 200 passing yards and no rushing defense. The next week, Utah would be given some new challenges to overcome. Sometimes the Utes prevailed, and sometimes the judges spent five minutes roasting them behind closed doors about their offensive scheme and choice in sauce. To a point, that’s what every college football team faces every single week, but Utah always made it more challenging than it should have been, and they always made it close.

Because so many of Utah’s games could have gone one way or the other, it’s fair to wonder what could have been if a few more things had gone right for the Utes.

There’s a world out there where Utah converts the 4th and goal against Cal and prevents Oregon from scoring a game winning touchdown as the clock expires. In that world, the Utes would be 10-2 and looking at their best season as a member of the Pac-12.

However, if it’s okay to imagine what the Utes’ season could have been if they won the games they were supposed to, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that the season could have been much worse. That’s the problem with playing even with an opponent, sometimes the other team is going to have a chance to win the game.

If BYU converts that two-point conversion at the end of the game, and Zack Moss fails to pick up either 4th down against USC, suddenly the Utes are 6-6 on the season. Just as a couple of inches kept Utah from reaching 10-2, a couple of inches also kept the Utes’ from sinking to 6-6.

“It could have been better, or it could have been worse,” could summarize any recent Utah season, and the amount of close games Utah played makes it especially true this year. That’s not going to stop me from appreciating how good Utah was at playing at the exact same level as the other team, even if that appreciation is laced with some level of sarcasm. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but it was really impressive. With the regular season now over, there’s really only one thing we know about the Utes’ now: the bowl game is going to be close, so be ready.

The red zone offense really was trash though.