Youth was served at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, and it also was served up. Now Kyle Whittingham has a huge decision to make, although it seems his actions have already pushed him across that threshold, to a point of no return.
After nibbling around the edges in past weeks, Travis Wilson, Utah's 18-year-old quarterback, started his first college game against UCLA here in the sunshine of the Arroyo Seco, and in the bright light of the afternoon glare, he looked …
Not only did he play. He can play.
He's just not ready yet to win. Not with a Utah team that fell to 2-4, 0-3 in the Pac-12 following a fresh 21-14 loss to the Bruins.
Starting the freshman, surrounded by a mostly inept offense, ranked No. 114 nationally, against a good UCLA team in this historic setting was too much for the rook. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 220 yards and one pick. Wilson looked like a cartoon character, his arms and legs spinning, with him ever staying in place.
Ironically enough, the only touchdown pass thrown by a Ute in this game came off the arm of the displaced starter, Jon Hays, who completed a 1-yarder with just more than three minutes to play, after Wilson left because his helmet fell off. But even then, the game didn't seem to be truly hanging in the balance. It never did. The offense was too tepid too often.
"I was really glad I got to start this game," Wilson said, afterward. "I felt comfortable. … We just have to keep on going."
Rather optimistically, Wilson added that Utah's offensive woes stemmed from "the little things."
In truth, they stemmed from big things.
Like the fact that Utah can't run the ball. John White, who had hoped to gain well over 1,200 yards this season after his success a year ago, picked up just 44 yards here on a mere 11 rushes. He vanished in the second half. All the Utes combined ran for 75 yards.
And the pass game simply isn't polished or proficient enough to make up for that.
"We've got to be more productive," Whittingham said.
The coach explained the reason he went with the freshman at QB this week was: "He outplayed Jon in practice." But Whittingham also confessed that he was "trying to jump-start the offense."
Yeah, the Diehard is dead.
The only other Utah touchdown, besides that interloped scoring pass by Hays near game's end, came off a muffed punt in the end zone by a UCLA return man in the first quarter. Other than that, the Ute offense contributed nothing in the way of what matters most.
The entire offense seemed like a bad cartoon.
Wilson did the freshman thing he looked great on some throws and horrible on others. He threw the ball straight into the arms of a Bruin defender. And he fired a 37-yard bullet to Dres Anderson.
He has talent. And he has a ways to go.
But that doesn't matter now.
Come what may, the Utes are stuck with the kid.
Whittingham's decision to go with Wilson at this juncture means this: He can't go back. Benching Hays, a less-than-stellar but serviceable senior, at the front edge of the sixth game is bold, although some have labeled the Utes' predicament at this point as nothing-to-lose. Still, there's a whole lot more losing that could follow as Wilson continues to live and learn. Up next: Oregon State on the road.
If Wilson turns into a learning liability, Whittingham, no matter how desperate, can't just crawl back to Hays and say: "Uh, pay no attention to your benching. Be confident. I always believed in you, even though I tossed you to the curb like yesterday's garbage."
That would make him a flip-flopper, and make his senior QB unconfident and crazy.
Although Whittingham said afterward that Wilson "grew in this game and showed some progress," he claimed the teenager is not his certain starter, moving forward: "We'll watch the film and make decisions."
That boat left the dock for good Saturday afternoon.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.