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October 20, 2012

Stakes high for Utes

The University of Utah football team, notorious for putting itself in tough spots has done it again. Unfortunately, this time, the spotlight is brighter, the stage bigger and the stakes higher than ever before.

Source of a great deal of pride for this Utah football program for nearly a decade, the Utes' nation-leading bowl win streak was snapped at the hands of Boise State at the 2011 Las Vegas Bowl.

Unless the Utes win out, they will be ineligible for a bowl invitation, snapping yet another long-standing tradition that has been a major recruiting tool over the course of rebuilding this program.

Coaches could confidently tell recruits that if they came to Utah, they could almost count on post-season play.

As the Utes built their program, and their national reputation over the past decade, many remained doubtful. Most of the Utes' doubters originated in the BCS conferences as many questioned the Utes' ability to compete week in and week out, their bowl streak and the legitimacy of a Mountain West team.

A Sugar Bowl win over Alabama helped to quiet such musings for a time, and with the Utes' imminent membership in the newly formed Pac-12, most were content to wait-and-see.

What we did see in the Utes' first Pac-12 season was a mixed bag; the jury was still out on the Utes.

Most were willing to forgive a poor first season in Pac-12 play, especially given the turnaround the Utes successfully completed after putting things together in the second half of the season, topped off with yet another bowl invitation and subsequent win.

Was the 2011-12 season one altered by mitigating circumstances, or were the Utes not quite up to the task as many in the nation suspected?

What happens in the remainder of the 2012 season may seal the Utes' national perception, and by extension, the reputation of the Pac-12, who is limping along well behind the SEC, Big 10 and Big 12.

Will Larry Scott's grand experiment pay off, or flop?

The University of Colorado isn't helping matters much, either and the original Pac-10 members each have their own crosses to bear.

For the Utes' part, the second half of the season matters a great deal, more the program than for the conference.

A continuation of the season in progress may be enough to nullify the Utes' prior accomplishments, and looking ahead, how might a losing record and no bowl game affect the psyche of this program very much accustomed to winning?

It all equates to unimaginable pressure on a true freshman quarterback who will make just the second start of his career on the road against No. 8 ranked Oregon State.

The Utah offense started out with myriad questions and issues, and while nothing has been wholly resolved, the Utes have at least stabilized the offensive line and resolved the pass protect issues it suffered early in the season.

The Utes have cycled through three different starting quarterbacks, finally settling on Travis Wilson, and 25 year old, first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson is experiencing growing pains before our eyes.

With decisions made, finalized and then re-confirmed again, the Ute offense is finally settling into some type of scheme and identity over the past two weeks, Saturday's game in Corvallis may signal whether or not this offense is on the right path.

A small comfort to be sure, but an established, viable direction is more than the Ute offense has enjoyed to date.

The young Wilson is confident that his team, under his direction, is indeed headed in the right direction.

"We definitely feel confident in the direction of this offense. I'm feeling more comfortable in the schemes and as a team, we're more confident in what we've been doing the past few weeks," Wilson said. "We had a chance to make our mistakes, and now we've come out and worked hard to polish those things up. We feel like the little things we didn't do were the things that held us back, and having a chance to work on those for a couple of weeks will be huge."

Wilson, not showing any signs of nerves while demonstrating an awareness of the situation and he his teammates find themselves, is showing a calm poise and confidence as he prepares for the latest test awaiting him at Oregon State.

"We can't think about the rest of it. We have to go out and execute the game plan, play by play, that's all we can control," he said. "We're excited to get back out there Saturday and prove that we're a better team that we've shown. We're excited for this opportunity, and this latest challenge."

On the defensive side of the ball, perhaps the biggest disappointment of many, safety Eric Rowe insists there is no panic, or major overhaul planned.

"There is nothing major going on. It isn't the coaches' fault and there's no problem with the schemes, or game plans," Rowe stated. "It's on us and we have to get back to basics. It's tackling and staying mentally focused and strong. We have to eliminate the mental mistakes, so it hasn't gone the way we planned it, but we have everything we need to get back to playing Utah defense."

With different issues facing both sides of the ball, each feels strongly that the necessary pieces to compete exist.

"We just have to stay together, stay poised and keep believing in each other. We know what we have here," summarized Wilson. "I have confidence in my teammates, and I know they have confidence in me. We have to win this game, that's the bottom line. There's no choice."

Wilson is correct in that the Utes need a win, and whether or not they do could turn a season drastically, one direction or the other making Saturday a pivotal moment in his young career.

While a win, or a loss clearly won't define his collegiate career, it could certainly propel it, along with the program he now carries solidly on his shoulders.

"If we could get this win, it would be huge. It would put us back on track and really change the season," he said. "It would change everything for us."


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