He struggled tonight — put ball on ground couple of times — but we love Joe Williams. He’s a competitor. – Kyle Whittingham
BOULDER, Colo. — It had all gone so well for Joe Williams, for weeks. But it ended with a pair of fumbles that squashed Utah’s hopes of finishing the season with a win over Colorado.
Isn’t this where we came in?
So six weeks after the Ute running back returned from a month-long layoff, and eight days after everything began to short-circuit, it ended like this: Two fumbles in one game, and a 27-22 loss to Colorado.
Talk about your plot twists. Williams, who left the team two games into the season, returned after a four-game absence. But he exited the regular season again on Saturday almost exactly as he did the first time — plagued by fumbilitis.
“A roller coaster, no doubt about it,” he said.
It was not all Williams’ fault the Utes lost. There was plenty of blame to go around. The Utes finished with just 339 offensive yards. More importantly, they got only two touchdowns, once on a Boobie Hobbs punt return and the other on a short pass with 1:34 remaining.
Utah came into the game ranked 115th in the country in red zone production.
But for Williams, it was particularly personal. Despite putting up Heisman-like numbers for several weeks, both he and the team crashed the last two weeks in losses to Oregon and Colorado. Midnight struck. The carriage turned into a pumpkin, the horses to mice, the debutante to a wash-girl.
Regardless, the return of Williams was a Hollywood story. He rushed for a so-so 97 yards against the Buffs, but in other games after his layoff, he never carried for fewer than 149. Against UCLA he went for a record 332 yards.
“He was a huge part of our success, once he came back, and I don’t know where we’d have been without him,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Who knows, maybe somebody would have stepped up, but we know he’s been a huge value to the team. He struggled tonight — put ball on ground couple of times — but we love Joe Williams. He’s a competitor.”
After the game, Williams came into an interview area beneath Folsom Field and answered every question. A week earlier, after the loss to Oregon, he entertained the media by answering every query with one-word answers: “Colorado.”
This time it was the mature Williams, the one who had led the Utes on such a wild ride. But between him and the rest of the offense, there wasn’t nearly enough juice.
“We had our chances and we didn’t get them (touchdowns). You gotta score points,” Whittingham said, calling his offense “non-existent.”
“I just know we’ve been brutally bad in the red zone all year long,” he said.
Williams’ first fumble came in the third quarter on a first-and-10 at the Colorado 14. The ball popped loose and Colorado recovered at the 2. Williams had carried 12 yards before losing the ball.
The next one came with 11:05 remaining. Trailing 20-16, Utah had the ball on its own 13, when the ball was stripped and Kenneth Olugbode scooped it up and rolled in to score, putting the Buffaloes out of reach.
Although the Utah-Colorado football series has been tight ever since they became conference members in 2011, this one had a chance to break the chain. With Colorado playing for a possible Rose Bowl berth, and Utah playing for peanuts, the Utes had little to gain.
“Proud of our guys. Our guys are warriors. Shame we had to lose,” Whittingham said.
Colloquially known as the “Rumble in the Rockies” (is this a pro wrestling card?) none of the six games have been decided by more than seven points since the schools resumed play as Pac-12 members. That came after nearly a half-century layoff. Colorado is still Utah’s fifth-most frequent opponent — 63 games.
The hope has been that they would become fierce rivals. Conference bigwigs started touting the geographical proximity from the start, calling it a natural pairing.
But neither coach has called it a rivalry, and Whittingham admitted it isn’t “‘cause there’s no bad blood.”
That doesn’t mean there are no storylines, however. In the case of Joe Williams, it happened to be one with an ending as strange as it gets.
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