Utah football coach Ron McBride was wearing his baseball cap with "MAFU" written across the front. "MAFU" is an acronym only a football coach - or a terrorist - could love. It stands for mental toughness, aggressiveness, fanatical effort and unity - which was in fairly short supply Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Still, there was enough to wear the hat without blushing. The Utes went ahead 17-0, then saw it whittled to a single point, before hanging on to beat Fresno State 24-16. After three weeks of blaming themselves for a run of terrible football, at least they could say they showed enough MAFU to get back in the win column.Barely.
The Utes, it should be noted, are the football equivalent of a luge ride. They're suckers for a good scare. They act like they've all seen "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" one too many times. If there's one thing predictable about them, it's that they're going to make things hairy.
"We spend eight days (practicing) on just not going offsides, and what do we do? In the second quarter when we need some plays it's first-and-15, first-and-15," said McBride.
"Then they do the fake punt and we know what they're gonna do. I mean the guy (Fresno State special teams John Baxter) is my son-in-law. He (the punter, Jeff Roberts) goes out and throws the ball up there and all the corner(back) has to do is cover him. And he's right on him, he just doesn't make the play."
Victory aside, the Utes managed to make it a dangerously familiar production. For most of the first half they appeared on the verge of a blowout. But as the second quarter waned, so did the Utes. Fresno scored 10 points in the last 1:41, thus ensuring McBride would be in full agitation at halftime.
"When you look at it from one perspective, it shouldn't have been a close game," said McBride. "It should have been, I don't know, 31-8 or something like that. We got 'em down 17-0 and that's what they do. It gave them life at halftime."
Living on the edge is, after all, a Utah trademark. Just two fourth-quarter field goals kept the Utes from losing at Utah State. Against Hawaii they led 20-0 at the half, only to trail 21-20 before averting disaster - but only for a week. The next Saturday they lost 31-28 to Boise State, bogged down by 10 penalties and giving up a last-minute touchdown that cost them the game. The next week they scored just three points in the second half, losing 27-24 at Wyoming.
All of which makes it seem the Utes are somehow shortening McBride's life. "One thing about Mac," said quarterback Darnell Arceneaux, "he's an emotional guy - and we thrive off that. He lost another 200 hairs off his head today and he can't afford to lose any more."
The problems on Saturday were disturbingly familiar. In the early third quarter, the Bulldogs fumbled on the kickoff and Utah's Mark Merritt got a hand on it - but lost it back to Fresno. Later the Utes got as far as the Fresno 11 before a holding penalty put them back on the 21. Then Jonathan Crosswhite was sacked and the Bulldogs recovered the fumble. Moments later came the 37-yard touchdown pass on a fake punt, and the Utah lead was down to one. Utah intercepted a pass with 5:31 left in the third quarter, but it was called back on a holding penalty.
All in all, your basic shoot-yourself-in-the-foot sort of afternoon.
Leading 24-16 in the final period, the Utes nearly blew their lead again. Fresno moved to the Utah 12 with 2:49 to go, but a fourth-down shovel pass went incomplete. Fresno's final drive ended at the Utah 36 when John Frank batted down a pass.
Piece of cake.
Thus, as McBride walked off the field, MAFU hat in place, a friend approached. "He said, `Coach, you're gonna have a heart attack. Sit down here and relax and don't move,' " said McBride.
"Tell you what: I look at it and I can't believe some of the things we do. It's like it's unbelievable. I look out there and say, `Naaaaaw! Naaaaaaw! Noooooo! We're not doing THAT!' "