CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Center Jesse Boone said before the season that the Utah Utes were going to have to forge their own identity in the wake of their historic season last year, define a new personality and create their own character.
And perhaps, just a month into the season, they already have.
"Maybe this is just what kind of team we are," Boone said. "We like close finishes."
The Utes could be in for another one when they play North Carolina today at Kenan Stadium on their longest road trip in 12 years. But coach Kyle Whittingham would prefer to see his team rediscover a "killer instinct" - something he has been emphasizing more and more every time the Utes imperil their control of a game.
"We need to be able to take a game and put it away when we have the opportunity," he said.
The Utes provided a textbook example of that against the Tar Heels last year, knocking them into submission by halftime under a hail of big plays in a 46-16 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Yet "finishing" a game can be something of an abstract concept - "not a bunch of teams in the country . . . have the ability to do it," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said - and one not easily taught with a simple drill on the practice field or page in the playbook.
"I don't think there's anything you can do, practice it or
whatever," receiver John Madsen said. "It's just kind of a mind-set. When we get up on teams, we have to put the throttle down and finish them. I don't think there's any practicing it. There's not a whole lot about it except having everyone on the team having the same mind-set."
So far, that hasn't been the case.
The Utes have allowed three of their four games to be decided by three points - they won two of those, at least - despite leading each by at least 10 points in the second half and fading in one way or another. Either the offense stopped working or the defense wore down or a conservative strategy gave an opponent a chance to fight back.
It's an odd phenomenon for a team that grew so accustomed to blowing out opponents last season, which might be the precise reason it's happening now with a relatively young and inexperienced team.
"When we get the lead, and when we're up, everybody starts to think, 'Oh, the game's over,' " defensive lineman Steve Fifita said, "because last year, once we went up, there was no looking back. So once everybody sees us go up, they just think, 'Oh, it's in the bag.' And just that little bit, right there, that gives [opponents] a shot to come back."
Although they lack a tangible way to try to remedy the problem, coaches have continued to emphasize "finishing" during practice. Whether by hollering for players to properly finish plays and drills or having them run extra as a reminder, they have been trying to instill a mentality that doesn't even consider letting up.
"You just have to install finish, all throughout the week," running back Quinton Ganther said. "After they hear it enough, then they'll be finishing."
The Utes will be happy enough if they simply get another chance to put the boot down on somebody.
The Tar Heels appear to be improved from the disastrous state in which they visited Salt Lake City last season - injuries and suspensions turned a bad team into a hopeless one - and they will be playing in front of 60,000 friendly fans who would love for their team to build on last week's victory over rival N.C. State.
"They're going to be waiting for us," Madsen said. "We know they're going to be ready and they're going to give us their best shot. They're probably mad about what happened to them last year, and we have to come out and try to do the same thing."
The North Carolina defense has looked much more capable than it has in the last three years, too, although the Utes have hardly shriveled into nothing.
Quarterback Brian Johnson has played better and better as the starter, and the Utes have shown the ability to be just as devastating with their spread offense as they were last year. Despite their late-game wobbles, they're still averaging 29 points and 432.5 yards per game - and they put up 38 points in 34 minutes in a 38-35 victory over Air Force last week.
Today's big questions, it appears, are going to be whether the Utes can withstand the long trip and the higher level of competition that a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference theoretically provides, as well as hold up defensively late in the game.
And if not?
Well, maybe there's an overlooked benefit.
"I'm sure the fans like it a lot more," Boone said, only half-jokingly. "They don't like these things that are over by the third quarter. . . . People get up and leave when we're winning by three touchdowns in the third quarter. The games are more exciting now, and that's fine with me, as long as we're getting the W."
email@example.comUtah at North Carolina
n At Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.
n Kickoff: 11:35 a.m., MDT
n TV: KJZZ
n Radio: 700 AM
n Records: Utah 3-1 (1-1 MWC); North Carolina 1-2 (1-1 ACC)
n Series: Utah leads, 1-0
n Last Meeting: Utah 46, North Carolina 16 (2004)
n Line: North Carolina by 3 1/2
About the Utes: Aiming for the 200th pure road win in their history, they have won 11 of their last 12 nonconference games. . . . WR Travis LaTendresse leads the team with 19 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown. . . . S Eric Weddle made 11 tackles and an interception against UNC last year. . . . They have not played so far east since 1977, and they have never played an ACC team on the road.
About the Tar Heels: QB Matt Baker completes just 47.5 percent of his passes, with five interceptions and four touchdowns. . . . They average only 87.3 rushing yards per game, but have played a rough schedule. . . . WR Jaworski Pollock needs nine catches to reach 166 and become the all-time leader.
Three keys to a Utah victory
1. STOP HIM, ALREADY
Poor tackling has been one of the most consistent problems on defense for coach Kyle Whittingham, and the Utes cannot afford to give bigger, faster players second chances to pick up yards and first downs.
2. NOTHING LONG
The Tar Heels have some fleet receivers on the outside, and the Utes must keep them from making big plays downfield. Flustering inconsistent quarterback Matt Baker would help a lot, too.
3. CONTROL THE BALL
The defense can't wear down on a warm afternoon if the offense keeps putting together long scoring drives. The Utes have won the possession battle in all four games so far, and they need to make it five.