Prediction Paul in Santa Clara
By Paul Ratliff (@Prediction_P977)
The Utah Utes began the 2018 season with higher expectations than normal, the defense that has carried the Utes in the Whittingham era was again a top 10 unit, but optimism was rooted in returning starters on offense, and one of the most explosive RBs in the nation. The season featured a slow start in the non-conference schedule; with a first half no-show against Weber, and a narrow win over Northern Illinois, but the conference schedule was upon the Utes in week three when they dueled the Washington Huskies under the lights in Rice Eccles.
The Huskies would come into Salt Lake and proceed to bully the Utes and win 21-7 in a game that was closer than the score indicated, but at the end of the day, Washington moved to 11-1 all-time against Utah, 3-0 in Salt Lake, and 4-1 in the PAC 12 era. Jake Browning was quoted postgame in regards to physicality against Utes and gave some bulletin board material, “I thought we definitely delivered more than we absorbed, so I think that’s why we won.” Browning, the senior QB who had regressed each year after his sophomore campaign where he had the Huskies in the CFB playoff final four, had been benched, and called out by many Huskies fans was still a winner. On that cool September night in Salt Lake, Washington kept on furthering the narrative that they couldn’t be beaten by Utah. Not one fan, player or coach knew that night that we would get a rematch in late November for the PAC 12 title.
I headed to the stadium, paid my 50 dollars for parking, and proceeded to walk a mile right into the heart of a Utah alumni party. I began talking to tons of Ute fans as an unbiased party that had no dog in this fight; making that clear to each and every fan I talked to wearing my WVU hat so they believed me, and they proceeded to give me unfiltered homer optimism. The diehards were out and the belief was strong that Utah was not only going to cover the -5 spread but win the game outright. Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne were pressed into duty with the losses of Huntley and Moss and performed admirably but many Ute fans told me that the freshman duo was an upgrade. Felix a great guy with half of his face painted white, half red gave me belief in the underclassmen, “No drop-off from Huntley to Shelley, Jason is a better athlete, Shyne and TJ Green give you just about the same as what Moss did.” Connor, a Beaver native told me that Shelley should be favored in the QB matchup, “Shelley has never been benched, Browning plays scared and was benched against Cal, and if we stop Gaskin he can’t beat our defense.” The confidence may have been fueled by some liquid courage, but as a whole the Ute fans were confident.
The sunny 65 degree tailgate with the Utah band, swoop the mascot, and unbridled confidence was a sight to see, but as game time drew closer the temperature dropped into the low 50s and it felt like Championship football weather in late November, a setting Washington, a conference contender every year was prepared for, Utah with its first south title and time in the national spotlight proved to have some stage fright in the big moment as the nation's eyes were on them. The video boards at Levi Stadium showed the face of former Ute and Ravens pro bowl safety Eric Weddle, whose last words before the Utes emerged from the tunnel to take the field were “this is our moment”, and while the Washington Huskies ended up winning 10-3 in crazy fashion the Utes showed grit I had never seen from a program that was overmatched and catching 5 points in a conference championship game.
The game became a defensive stalemate the entire duration of the game, where each team had made a field goal. The Huskies struck first with a Peyton Henry 29 yard field goal to take the lead with 3:08 left in the first half. The Utes had their best drive of the game to that point before half, trying to answer the Huskies FG the Utes faced 3rd and 6 from the Washington 36 yard line trying to inch closer to FG range, and the Huskies brought the heat up the middle and sacked Shelley at the 48-yard line. Facing 4th and long with two timeouts still in hand, Kyle Whittingham decided to go into the half trailing 3-0.
The second half started fast for the Utes as they executed their most explosive offensive play of the night, Shelley found his Texas high school teammate Jaylen Dixon for a 26 yard gain. What happened next was the play that changed the game, Seosoi Mariner was targeted on a play that if it was caught would have put the Utes in scoring position, deflected off his hands to his ankle into the air and into the hands of Byron Murphy who flew down the sideline for a 66 yard pick 6. The air was taken out of the stadium from the Utah side of the field that vastly outnumbered the Huskies contingent, who were aware in a game where points were at a premium their Utes had fallen behind by 7, and with 1:06 in the 3rd the Utes faced their biggest deficit of the game, 10-7 Huskies.
The Utes who were too young at two of the biggest positions in the offense began to fight tooth and nail to get into the end zone, but Jason Shelley would throw his second of three interceptions with 15 seconds left in the third quarter, throwing a deep ball that had lockdown coverage from Miller the UW DB. The defense had allowed fewer points than the offense and wanted one more shot for the offense to do their part when they blocked a 38-yard field goal that would have given the Huskies a two score lead, and the offense took over with just over five minutes. Jason Shelley who left his heart on the field showed that he was a true freshman when he threw his 3rd pick of the game with 4:27, 2nd to Bryon Murphy who was a thorn in Shelley’s side all day. You would think with 4:27 left the Utes may have waved the white flag, that would prove to be far from the truth, as the Utes had one more shot to tie staging a last second drive that was in UW territory the game came down to a 4th and 12 with just over 30 seconds left. Shelley looked to the middle of the field to Mariner to convert the first down, and the Husky DB got there before the ball and made contact, no penalty game over.
Not being a fan of either team it provided perspective, one team thought they would win, but one team and its fan base was fighting to do anything they could to raise that trophy. I felt the pain of the Utah fan base and sympathized with them having suffered crushing losses many times before living in my days in Morgantown, WV cheering on the Mountaineers. This team and this fan base deserved better, but while the Huskies may be smelling roses, the sun comes up in Salt Lake and the Utes are headed to the Holiday Bowl to take on Big 10 runner-up Northwestern. Ute fans should understand while the title loss was tough, this has been a season to remember and one to not soon forget.