BY THE TIME the game had ended Saturday night at Rice Stadium, the Utes had to be wondering exactly what they needed to do to get back in the good graces of Fate. How to get momentum to swing their way. And how to stop the momentum from changing in the first place.
It's something they'll be thinking about for at least a week.The Utes' fourth home football game of the season was a textbook case in the whims of momentum, also known as Big Mo. Big Mo was yanking the Utes around all night. They began the game with all the promise of a graduation speech. Their future was ahead of them. They were leading 14-0 before they could check the scoreboard. It was starting to look suspiciously like a blowout.
But suddenly, as quickly as it started, Big Mo changed his mind. He favored the Aztecs. By halftime, the score was tied. And finally came the fourth quarter, when Big Mo really went wild. Trailing by three, the Utes went ahead, then the Aztecs scored the winning touchdown with 9:27 to go. But not until the Utes failed on a fourth-and-25 with 54 seconds to go was it decided.
Big Mo had finally decided to stick with the Aztecs.
Utah's plans for its first WAC championship in 31 years took a side detour Saturday night at Rice Stadium, thanks to a 24-21 loss to San Diego State. No perfect league record. No more looking back at everyone else. From here on the Utes will have to do it the old fashioned way. They'll have to e-a-a-a-a-rn it.
If the Utes didn't get through the WAC unscathed this year, it couldn't have come as a big surprise. Last year they were rolling along with their highest national ranking ever and nursing an 8-0 overall record and a 5-0 WAC record, when suddenly they drove off a cliff. They went to New Mexico to play a truly mediocre team that would win only five games all year, and lost 23-21. Still nursing their bruised egos, they moved over to Air Force the next week and lost 40-33.
They were wondering what they'd done to offend Big Mo.
The losses didn't end their season but they definitely changed the way the Utes viewed things. They went from bullet-proof to seriously scared in two weekends. While they recovered to finish with a Top 10 national ranking and a win in the Freedom Bowl, they had failed to win the WAC championship.
And so this year, the Utes found themselves in a somewhat similar situation on Saturday night. They were undefeated in the WAC and again looking like a serious contender.
Not that they had been rolling over people. After non-conference losses to Oregon and Stanford, they beat up sorry New Mexico 36-9, then eked out a comeback victory over Fresno State the next week. Last week at UTEP they flirted with losing before pulling away on the burly shoulders of running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.
It didn't hurt going into Saturday's game for the Utes to know that, even in their best years, the Utes have never dominated the Aztecs. San Diego State and Utah have an alltime 8-8-1 series history. The first seven games were decided by four or fewer points.
But for the first 15 minutes of this year's contest, the Utes owned the place. Not just the stadium or the field or the crowd. They owned the Aztecs. It was as one-sided as a Tyson fight.
It began as one of those nights when everything you try works. And some things even work when you aren't trying. The game was just 52 seconds old when they got their first score on a 19-yard touchdown pass. Less than two minutes later they were in the end zone again and it was Utah 14-SDSU-zippo.
The Utes were thinking of building in the end zone. They were claiming the whole field as their personal property. They were pulling off the biggest land grab since the Louisiana Purchase.
But suddenly, it was it was over. After having a third touchdown called back on a penalty, they coughed up two touchdowns in the second quarter, allowing the Aztecs to tie the score before the half. A third-quarter field goal put the Aztecs ahead 17-14.
Though the Utes went ahead 21-17 early in the fourth period, the scoring was not yet over. San Diego State scored again. For the second time in three weeks it went down to the final minute before being decided. Only when the Utes couldn't move after taking the ball over with 10 seconds to go could they consider themselves officially through with their night.
So, for the second year in the row, the Utes have learned that winning the WAC takes more than a few weeks of decent play. And that it isn't all that easy when teams start taking you seriously. And that if they want to win a championship, they're going to have to not only play well, they'll have to figure out how to get Big Mo on their side at the end, as well as the start.