San Jose, Calif. » Utah's game against San Jose State Saturday should have been nothing more than a formality.Take a short plane flight, pick up a road win and move on to the bigger, badder teams looming on the schedule starting with the visit to Oregon next week.
San Jose State should have been like Utah State, another nice relatively easy win against a WAC opponent in which the 17th-ranked Utes' new quarterback had a chance to become more familiar with the offense in live situations, the defense could iron out those missed assignments and the first-year coordinators could become more comfortable in their roles.
Only the Spartans (0-2) didn't play along with that expected storyline Saturday, showing that while the WAC may have fallen behind the MWC in prestige and national awareness, its teams can still cause fits for BCS contenders including the Utes.
"Give credit to San Jose," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They played hard. They had a great game plan going in."
The Utes (2-0) did indeed survive, beating the Spartans 24-14, but the game wasn't nearly as decisive as the final score indicated.
Sure, Oregon is next on the schedule as is a home date with Louisville and the conference schedule, but first the Utes must go home and figure out what went wrong Saturday before they can look ahead to those matchups.
'Suspect,' was the best way to describe the Utes' Saturday. Suspect in the way they played and suspect in regards to the outcome of the game for much of the night.
The same team that was whipped by USC 56-3 last week held the Utes scoreless for two quarters, a drought that wasn't broken until receiver Jereme Brooks scored on a 51-yard pass play with 13:44 remaining that finally gave the Utes a 14-7 lead.
In between that play and an impressive opening drive in which Terrance Cain led the Utes on a 77-yard scoring drive, the Utes virtually did everything wrong they possibly could. Cain, who found his receivers with strong, accurate passes and wisely tucked the ball and ran when necessary in that drive, got shakier and shakier as the game continued.
As he went, so too did the rest of the Utah team. Running back Matt siata's runs were dominant at first then diminished, Utah lost two umbles and Utah's defenders committed several costly penalties. As a eam, the Utes were penalized 11 times for 69 yards. Even the kicking game suffered as Ben Vroman, who made his first collegiate field goal against Utah State, failed on three attempts Saturday.
Trick plays backfired too as a pass play from Asiata and Cain on 4th-and-goal at the one-yard line failed with the ball soaring past Cain's outstretched fingers as he ran wide open in the right corner of the end zone.
"We did a lot of things not very effectively," Whittingham said. "Namely, we didn't play the deep ball very well. We turned the ball over twice in the first half. Our special teams was a big dropoff from last week. You name it, we have to work on it this week."
The Utes have two injuries to deal with now too. Asiata's night ended early with a shoulder injury and offensive lineman Caleb Schlauderaff started then was held out for precautionary reasons because of a knee injury. Both will be evaluated Sunday.
The only other thing that remained for the Utes to mess up was the ending. Luckily for them they didn't.
Cain settled down, finishing 18-of-31 for 248 yards, and the Utes made it 21-7 with a 15-yard run by Eddie Wide with 9:03 remaining, then held on to escape with their perfect record still intact. The question is, how intact is their confidence?
Certainly it has to be a little shaky after struggling against a team that hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since upsetting No. 9 TCU 27-24 in 2000.
Whittingham insisted earlier this week the game wouldn't be a 'trap' game because the Utes wouldn't allow it to be one. They'd be ready to play and give their best effort, he indicated.
If that indeed was the case and Saturday was a best effort, next week's game at Oregon suddenly looks much more challenging than it did last week when the Ducks were losing to Boise State and Utah was manhandling Utah State.
Maybe the Utes will get back to Salt Lake City, dissect the film and decide Saturday was just one of those weird nights when bizarre things happen.
Or maybe they'll get home and decide trap game or not, the Utes escaped and for a young team finding its identity, that is good enough regardless of what occurred, at least for this night.
"We could have played better, but we can't get frustrated," Cain said. "We need to stay poised."
History of MWC teams' records against WAC teams*:
Boise State 1-7
Fresno State 5-4
New Mexico State 4-0
San Jose State 1-3
Utah State 11-1
*Heading into Saturday
Utah vs. WAC Teams
The Utes participated in the WAC from 1962-1998. Here is the breakdown of the Utes' win/loss record against the WAC teams.
Boise State 2-4
Fresno State 5-4
San Jose State 4-1
Utah State 77-28-4