Heading into Saturday's game with Utah State, the University of Utah could be comforted by one thought: Things couldn't get any worse. Their top receiver was on crutches. Their best lineman was in street clothes. The lineup was being juggled like it was still August. They'd just lost to Nebraska by a zillion. Matters could only improve, right?
Then they walked into the halftime locker room Saturday trailing 12-11 to lowly Utah State, their kid brother just up the interstate. Argh.Cancel the plans for a banner season. Forget the bowl game. Tear down the 100th anniversary signs. Get the team into therapy. Things were getting worse.
"If we'd have lost, we'd have had do some serious regrouping," said nickelback Jeff Kirkman.
Not to worry. Not a moment too soon, the Ute offense snapped out a lengthy coma in the second half, and Utah won 42-18. With the Utes holding onto a narrow 20-18 lead early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Frank Dolce threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to fullback Steve Abrams and later ran for another touchdown to break the game open. The Utes scored 22 unanswered points.
"I got tired of watching that team lay around out there," said Utah coach Ron McBride. "We need to play with emotion and intensity, and we need to have fun. We don't need to be a tight football team."
Boys just got to have fun.
The Utes were having none of that at halftime. McBride began his locker room program with a screaming fit, and then resumed it just before they returned to the field. In the meantime, McBride's coaching staff decided to abandon their stubborn predilection for the running game and go to the air in the second half.
Frank Dolce, Utah's senior quarterback, produced a masterful performance, completing 25 of 42 passes for a career-high 376 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Not bad for a man who had 78 yards passing in the first half. Everybody got in on the act. Henry Lusk caught 7 passes for 111 yards; Abrams had 3 catches for 66 yards and 2 TDs; Sean Williams 4 catches for 63 yards; newcomer Greg Hooks 5 catches for 97 yards. All of the above had at least one reception worth 35 yards or more.
"Frank was as sharp as he can get," said McBride. "He didn't miss a read. He had a big-time day."
Saturday's victory was just what the Utes needed. Both Utah and Utah State staggered
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into the game desperate for a measure of vindication after opening-day embarrassments. The Aggies, 49-3 losers at Arizona, closed practice during the week. Not even university athletic department officials were allowed within eyesight of the team's preparations. The Utes, 49-22 losers to Nebraska, held intense, angry practices while their coaches tinkered with the lineup. Kirkman was promoted to the starting nickelback spot. Junior college transfer Edwin Garrette started in place of Sam Rhodes at left cornerback, and Mike Lewis started in place of Anthony Hall at defensive end.
On Friday evening, less than 24 hours before kickoff, the Utes were forced to make more changes when they learned that tackle Mike DeHoog had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA (see sidebar). Thus, the Utes played three players at new positions in the offensive line against USU. Left tackle Brian Anderson took over DeHoog's right tackle spot, reserve Cecil Thomas replaced Anderson, and then Ed Castillo replaced an injured Roy Ma'afala at guard.
The Utes, who already had lost All-American receiver Bryan Rowley to a broken ankle, used the DeHoog decision as a rallying point, as if they needed one given last week's disastrous start. But then they came out flat against USU. Their lone touchdown of the first half was a gift. USU's Israel Bird fumbled a punt and Kirkman recovered the ball at the USU 15. Moments later Keith Williams ran eight yards for a touchdown. On the PAT attempt, holder Steve Young ran for two points and Utah led 8-0.
But the rest of the half the Utes were quiet. The Ags got on the board with a 24-yard field goal by Sean Jones and then drove 80 yards in nine plays for another score - Tai Gordon's two-yard run. A missed conversion kick left them with a slim 9-8lead. The teams traded field goals late in the second quarter, giving USU that 12-11 halftime lead.
"We were a little shocked," said Dolce. "Utah State was a team we thought we could do something against."
At halftime, the Utes, who had a mere 114 yards total offense, made the decision to pass. "We decided to throw more because it was there," said McBride. "Their linebackers are up tight (on the line of scrimmage) and they're real aggressive. They play the run and get up in there. They're into pressure. They can't get back (into pass coverage); they're committed."
On the first play of the half, Dolce, who with his rebuilt line was never sacked all afternoon, connected with Hooks for 42 yards, which set up a field goal and a 14-12 lead. A short time later, the fireworks continued. "The linebackers were keying off the tailback and forgetting the fullback," said Abrams. "The coaches saw it and called the play." Dolce rolled right and threw left, back across the field to Abrams all alone. He ran 45 yards for a touchdown and a 20-12 lead.
Meanwhile, the Aggie receivers had been finding huge openings in Utah's zone defense all afternoon, and sometimes the Aggie quarterbacks actually threw the ball to them. After replacing starting quarterback Greg Angelovic in the second quarter, Anthony Calvillo threw for 219 yards, most of them to Toney Jenkins (9 catches for 118 yards), and the Utes were reshuffling their secondary again, putting Darren Castain, Kareem Leery and Derrick Odum on the field in an attempt to tighten their soft pass coverage. Calvillo threw a 16-yard TD strike to Jim Ray to close the gap to two points. The Aggies tried to tie the score with a two-point conversion attempt, but Swanson swooped in and dropped Calvillo for a loss on a rollout play.
Back came the Utes. Dolce threw to Sean Williams for 47 yards, and then came back to Abrams one more time. All afternoon, Abrams had been running straight pass routs to the flat, but this time he cut the rout short and sliced back inside, then pulled up in the middle of the zone, wide open. Dolce lofted a soft pass, looping it over defenders, and Abrams dashed into the end zone for a 22-yard play. The conversion pass to Curtis Marsh made it 28-18 . . . and counting.
Dolce hooked up with Hooks for 21 yards and Lusk for 35 and then scored on a one-yard keeper with 9:35 remaining.
In the meantime, the defense was closing the gaps. They intercepted three Calvillo passes - one by Kirkman (who also had two fumble recoveries), one by Reggie Alston, and another by Swanson, who dashed 46 yards for a touchdown with 4:05 remaining in the game.
"We're still shooting ourselves in the foot, and giving them a bunch of Christmas gifts," said USU coach Charlie Weatherbie, whose team has surrendered 11 turnovers and 91 points in two games. "I would like to play them when we're playing our best, and we didn't play our best."