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Up and down on the hill: Utes are at a crossroads with 0-4 USU on the horizon

SHARE Up and down on the hill: Utes are at a crossroads with 0-4 USU on the horizon

Over the past two weeks, Utah football has experienced the full spectrum of emotion: going from the high of beating a nationally ranked UCLA team (44-6) to the low of losing to unheralded UNLV (27-0).

With apologies to crooner James Taylor, the Utes have seen fire and they've seen rain. They've seen sunny days that they thought would never end. They've seen lonely times when they could not find a friend.

At 1-3 overall and 0-2 in Mountain West Conference play, Utah enters Saturday's homecoming game with Utah State looking for answers.

"You never want to point fingers. We certainly have to get more offensive production. You're going to win zero games scoring zero points. That's obvious. It's painfully obvious and so that's a concern," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Defensively, we've got to tackle better. My mind-set, always as a defensive coordinator, was if the offense doesn't score, let's score on defense. You never sit there and say 'OK, we did our part.'

"That's a loser's mentality and a loser's attitude," he added.

As far as the Utes are concerned, they're all in this together.

"Everyone in this building has got a job to do and that is to make this football team as good as we can possibly make it," Whittingham said. "I thought we had that headed in the right direction eight, nine days ago. Now I feel like we're back to square one."

The Utes are at a crossroads of sorts. In the midst of a season filled with twists and turns, they're desperate for consistency.

Whittingham readily admits there is little or no margin for error — even though a massive amount of injuries (including seven starters) has plagued the program.

"You've got to keep playing regardless of what circumstances you're under. You've got to keep playing," Whittingham said. "That's life. Football is a microcosm of life. So if you go through life and a couple of bad things happen, do you shut it down and just quit?

"That's not how I operate. That's why I expect the football team to operate the same way."

Utah is moving on, determined to turn things around.

"We have just as much talent in this building as we've had any other year here, if not more," quarterback Brian Johnson said. "The bottom line is finding a way to come out with the same edge, the same mental preparation, same physical preparation and dominate games like we used to."

Things have changed since Utah busted into the Bowl Championship Series and capped a perfect season with a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005. The Utes are just 16-13 overall, including a 9-9 conference mark. They've lost to all eight league foes over the past 2 1/3 seasons.

Senior captain Steve Tate considers it unacceptable.

"We've got to switch things up. We've got to do things differently as a team. We've just got to work harder," he said.

"... We've just got to find what we're doing wrong, we've got to learn from our mistakes and not make them again."

Losing, for obvious reasons, isn't sitting well with the Utes.

"I'm definitely not used to this. We've just got to find a way. That's the bottom line," Johnson said. "We've got to keep fighting because we still have a lot of football left to play. We still have an opportunity to send these seniors out right and still have an opportunity to do some pretty good things."

The talent level is there, he noted, to get the job done.

Utah has eight games left to play this season — four at home (USU, San Diego State, Wyoming, New Mexico) and four away (Louisville, TCU, Colorado State, BYU). It'll take six victories just to secure a winning season as the Utes seek to climb back from their worst start since 2000.

"We have to bounce back from this," Johnson said. "We have to find a way to get a win, and we'll take it from there."

The team's struggles have prompted plenty of criticism, and Whittingham knows it.

"It's hard to tell fans to be patient because they expect a good product on the field. They pay good money for their season tickets, and we owe them," he said. "I thought we did a nice job for them against UCLA, but then we come back and have such an opposite end of the spectrum football game the next week. I'll tell you one thing, I'm excited to get back in front of the home fans this weekend."

Some locals, however, are expressing their frustration about the team's poor start to the season. Sports radio and message boards have been popular mediums to vent.

"I'm oblivious to it. I don't even pay attention to it. I've got no time for that," Whittingham said. "I've got my own realm right here that I've got to deal with. So that doesn't bother me."

No verbal arrows have hit the target. Even if a hurtful remark or two gets through, Whittingham has no plans to engage in such talk.

He's too busy with other issues.

"I can't worry myself with that. There's far too many other important things to worry about," Whittingham said. "Everyone's got their opinion, and everyone's entitled to their opinion."

Besides, he explained, people always love you when you win and get down on you when you lose.

"That's just how it is. That's never going to change no matter what city you're in or what level you're at," Whittingham explained.

"So we really can't concern ourselves with that. We've just got to concern ourselves with our own situation, our own problems and our own deficiencies."

Utah enters each season with two main goals — prevail in the season opener and win the conference championship. The first didn't happen and the second is in serious jeopardy after losses to Air Force and UNLV.

Even so, there's still hope.

"There's so many teams that have got to play each other, and there's going to be some people knocking off each other. I think the conference race is still very much up for grabs," Whittingham said.

"Typically two losses won't get you a share of that title. Usually it's going to be undefeated or one loss, but like I've said there's a lot of football left to be played.

"We've just got to see how things play out," he continued. "We're not panicking, but we're certainly searching hard."

Johnson pointed out that the Utes can't take any league opponent for granted. They must be ready to play week-in and week-out.

Utah's recent roller-coaster ride includes a .500 record against MWC teams over the past 18 games.

"I don't know what it is. I don't think it's just one thing. It's multiple factors," Johnson said. "For whatever reason they've happened. You really don't have an answer for it. You just go out and try and produce, find a way to get a win."

All the injuries, however, have been a frustrating part of Utah's season.

"It drives me nuts, but like I said when we started this rash — nobody cares and it's our problem to deal with and we'll continue to deal with it," Whittingham said. "It's an opportunity for guys who haven't had an opportunity, thus far, to show what they can do."

The players aren't the only ones being asked to move forward. The coaching staff has also been admonished to do the same. Whittingham declined to discuss public criticism of his assistants, particularly offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

"I evaluate staff at the end of the year and make that determination at that point," Whittingham said. "What I expect right now from those guys is their best effort each and every week."

EXTRA POINTS: Safety Robert Johnson will be sidelined for three weeks after an MRI on his injured shoulder Tuesday...Middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni will not play this Saturday. His injured ankle has regressed...Defensive tackle Gabe Long, who suffered an MCL sprain in the Air Force game, is practicing with the team Whittingham is hopeful he'll be able to play against Utah State...Fans are invited to attend a homecoming pep rally Friday from 8-9:30 p.m. at the Union Building.

Utah-USU nuggets

• The Utes are just 9-9 in Mountain West Conference games since winning back-to-back outright league titles in 2003-04.

• Utah has lost to every team in the MWC over the past 2 1/3 seasons.

• Utah State is the only multiple-time opponent Utah hasn't lost to since 2005.

• Seven starters have been sidelined due to injury this season. Two more are doubtful after getting hurt last Saturday.

• Roller-coaster ride: A 44-6 win over 11th-ranked UCLA was followed by a 27-0 setback at UNLV, a team the Utes had beaten 11 straight times dating back to 1980.

• Utah went 166 games without being shut out until last weekend's loss at UNLV.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com