SALT LAKE CITY — My assignment on Saturday night was simple: Go watch the Stanford-Utah football game, write about some interesting observations and, oh yeah, drink lots of caffeine because this Pac-12 showdown has another late kickoff.

My two favorite parts of this game happened late in the late night, with one crazy play taking place in the final minute and the other touching moment coming after it was all over.

Most of the crowd, including the rowdy student section, had cleared out of Rice-Eccles Stadium by the time players and coaches of the two teams finished sharing handshakes and well-wishes following the Cardinal’s 23-20 victory over the Utes.

Many of the Utes had already headed into the locker room when players like senior linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga, assistant coaches and head coach Kyle Whittingham started re-assembling the squad in the southeast corner of the field.

Win or lose, this team sings the school song together with students after games.

Whittingham signaled up to the marching band in the south end zone to play the school song, and he and the team (most of it anyway) then faced the nearly empty MUSS section and sang “Utah Man” to continue that bonding tradition.

It probably wasn’t easy to sing. This song was certainly not belted out as spiritedly as those locker room videos we see after Ute wins. Many of the guys singing after this frustrating loss probably would’ve rather been hitting the showers.

In my opinion, that made it an even more heartwarming display of school pride by the football team. Impressive.

As several Ute fans pointed out, it was neat to see Lowell Lotulelei, a passionate senior defensive lineman, lead the way in front of his teammates, singing and pumping his fist in the air to the beat.

My favorite play happened with 44 seconds left.

Kicker Matt Gay has been one of the bright spots for the Utes this season, kicking field goal after field goal (ask BYU and San Jose State). The former Utah Valley soccer player’s late PAT was the kick everyone will remember.

The Utes trailed by four points after receiver Darren Carrington hauled in a touchdown pass from Troy Williams with less than a minute to go, but the normally routine extra point was anything but a gimme.

Long snapper Alex Whittingham, who’s had a rough time of late, sent a high snap behind him and holder/punter Mitch Wishnowsky dropped it before quickly grabbing the football and putting it in the proper position.

Gay had already started his forward motion as Wishnowsky attempted to set the ball, and the nation's leading kicker was forced to pause before awkwardly and hurriedly booting it with just enough force to barely get it to clear the cross bar.

Gay ended up on his back end as the ball made it through the goal posts.

It was awkward, awesome and appreciated by Coach Whitt.

“Matt Gay, he’s a gamer. I love that kid,” Whittingham said. “He stuck with it. And Mitch got to it down and just sneaked it over, which was huge.”

The coach pointed out that it made it a three-point game, which was important because Utah would’ve only needed a field goal to force overtime instead of a touchdown to win had the Utes recovered the ensuing onside kick (which they almost did). The fact that Utah was a 3.5 favorite also caused a stir among gamblers, no doubt.

A closer view:

More observations from an assignment I hope to repeat often:

• My most important observation: Pay attention when you’re standing on the sideline.

Fortunately for me, one of Williams’ errant passes zipped by and didn’t smash my head. Unfortunately for D-News intern Peter Holland Jr., who was standing next to me at the time, well, the sensitive area below his lower midsection wasn’t as lucky.

(Happy to report that Pete is a trooper and kept working even after getting hit … um, yeah.)

• While getting my media credential, I noticed a gathering of young guys and adults outside of the ticket booth. The Utes were hosting a bunch of big-time high school players they hope join the program on February’s signing day. I chuckled when I saw a sign that instructed these visitors that opposing team logos and colors are not allowed. On this day, that would be — (warning: dad joke ahead) — a Cardinal sin.

Quickly moving on …

• The view from the Rice Eccles Stadium press box is stunning. Look west out of the dining room, and you have an amazing view of downtown Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh Mountains. Look east, and you see the beautiful stadium and — if the kickoff isn’t at a silly late time — the rugged Wasatch Mountains in the background.

I noticed something I hadn’t before while looking out of the huge glass wall on the sixth floor. The six aisles in the west parking lot are each marked with a large red square and white letter. The first one is row G. The second is row O. The next four aisles are U, T, E and S. We'll assume the letters cleverly spell out "GO UTES" and not something about gout.

• The cannon in the southeast corner of the stadium had one of the coolest moments when it somehow blew out a giant smoke ring after an explosion. I’d come up with a snarky comment, but I already used all the brain cells I could on a similar situation in Provo five years ago.

This GIF is better than that old joke:

• Overall, it was a bizarre day for the Utes’ kicking team.

The younger Whittingham made a bad snap on a punt that gave the Cardinal possession on Utah’s 15-yard line. That could’ve turned out even worse, but the Utes’ defense stiffened up and forced Stanford into kicking a go-ahead (13-10) field goal. There were a couple of other shaky snaps, including the one on the late PAT that has the elder Whittingham perplexed.

“We can’t snap the ball to the punter or to the holder all of a sudden,” the coach said. “We went through all of spring and all of fall camp and no issues whatsoever and all of a sudden that’s a big issue.”

Whittingham — and, quite frankly, the rest of us — were also quite perplexed as to why Stanford wasn’t called for roughing the kicker when a Cardinal clearly plowed into Gay on a missed 50-yard field goal.

It was Gay’s first miss of the season after 15 straight makes.

“The ref said he thought he flopped, which he did not, it was very, very apparent to me,” Whittingham said. “I guess from his angle, his vantage point, he was assuming it was a flop. It was too bad, too.”

• If you saw the guy from Stanford with “LITTLE” on the back of his jersey, you know he’s anything but. Walker Little is an offensive lineman who stands 6-feet-7 and weighs 304 pounds.

• Celebrity sightings:

• A 47th straight sellout at RES. There’s something about the energy and vibe of a sold-out stadium with the vast majority of fans wearing the same color. It was a fun, passionate environment to be in. The stadium started clearing out in the fourth quarter when momentum swung in Stanford’s direction. I’m not sure whether to place blame on fickle fans — I’m admittedly a stay-until-the-final-buzzer guy — or on the Pac-12 for TV networks for starting these games so dang late. Regardless, the Utes deserve credit for building their program into one that fills a stadium six times a fall. (It was a bit surprising to see the place so empty with the outcome still on the line and, honestly, I think the MUSS should honor its football team’s tradition by staying until players sing the fight song with them following the game.)

• I enjoyed hearing a Ute staffer say Utah senior linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga’s name while giving media members updates over a press-box sound system. We’ll have to ask someone from Hawaii if he pronounced it correctly. I can verify that he nailed the names of Zack Moss and Bryce Love.

• Williams, filling in for injured QB Tyler Huntley, didn’t have a great game. He was downright dreadful at times, not taking advantage of being on the same team as stellar receiver Darren Carrington, failing in a prime goal-line opportunity (stay away from Twitter when that happens, yikes) and making two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter. But I found myself feeling bad for him when he spoke to media after the loss.

He had the phrase “I’ve just got to play better” on repeat, but what really got me was his statement about what fans and players might be thinking of him.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I know probably everybody hates me right now.”


“You just have to take it on the chin,” Williams continued. “That’s all I can really say. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way. I just have to come back stronger next week if I am in there.”

What’s that saying about “Don’t hate the player, hate the game?”

Yeah, that.

• Whittingham faced the media for eight minutes after the loss, which certainly wasn’t fun. He did manage to sneak in a couple of funny lines, though.

Speaking of the upcoming schedule:

“At least it gets easier going down to the Coliseum to play the USC Trojans, so we’ve got that going for us.”

And on the job Stanford’s offense did: “They’re very adept at picking up blitzes. You expect that from them. They’re all geniuses. They don’t blow many assignments.”

Multiple media members understandably laughed out loud at the “They’re all geniuses” line.

“It sounds funny, but it’s true,” Whittingham continued. “They’re really smart and good executors. They don’t beat themselves. It’s a good football team.”

• While walking around the stadium before the kickoff looking for something interesting to write about, I was approached by a guy who recognized me from Twitter. He jokingly asked a question along the lines of, “They let you in here after all the jokes you make about Utah?”

For the record, I also make jokes about the campuses that feature caffeine and cows and the other schools in the state when I remember they exist — well, except for my beloved Salt Lake Community College. The mighty Bruins (Class of 1995!) are off limits.

Speaking of making jokes about Utah, I couldn’t resist taking a tongue-in-cheek shot when students sang an untimely Tom Petty tribute during the fourth quarter as the Utes were in a free-falling mode.

If it makes Ute fans feel better after that dig — and after Utah indeed fell out of the AP rankings and down to 23rd in the coaches poll — I’m happy the tweet featuring players singing Utah Man has more retweets and likes than this accurate-but-low blow.