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A year after climbing to No. 5 in the polls, Utah just wants a win

Incredibly, Utah’s 45-15 triumph on Nov. 30, 2019, against Colorado still stands as the last time the Utes won a football game. Will they break through Saturday vs. Oregon State?

Utah quarterback Jake Bentley reacts after being sacked during game against Washington, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle. Washington won 24-21.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

How times, and circumstances, have changed — and changed dramatically.

A little more than a year ago, Utah thumped Colorado by 30 points at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Senior Night, improved to 11-1, moved up to No. 5 in the national polls, won its eighth straight game, claimed its second consecutive Pac-12 South championship and was angling to land a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Who would have guessed back then that a year later, that win over the Buffaloes would be its most recent victory?

Nobody.

Yes, incredibly, that 45-15 triumph on Nov. 30, 2019, against Colorado still stands as the last time the Utes won a football game.

In this pandemic-hampered season, Utah (0-2) has seen two games canceled, and two games lost, including last Saturday’s 24-21 heartbreaker at Washington.

A year ago this week, the Utes were preparing for the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon.

Now?

Utah is looking for its first victory of the season when it hosts Oregon State Saturday (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

The Utes are scheduled to finish the regular season next Friday at Colorado, with another game against a Pac-12 opponent, possibly Stanford, the following week.

Utah needs to post a .500 record to be bowl eligible. That would make Saturday’s game a must-win in order to reach that milestone.

A bowl bid certainly would help this young team in terms of getting extra practices as it prepares for the 2021 campaign.

But qualifying for a bowl game, and the perks that come with it, are not things coach Kyle Whittingham is concerned about right now and, no, that’s not something he’s addressed with his team.

“We’re harping on Oregon State right now and trying to find a way to be at our best for those guys and let whatever happens after that happen,” he said. “With the way the season lays out, it’s not an extra month of practice before the bowls. It will be a couple of weeks at best.

“All our focus, all our attention — we haven’t even talked about that as far as postseason — we’re just trying to become as good a football team as we can at the moment. We don’t want to get one step ahead of ourselves at all. All our focus is channeled to this week. There’s been no talk of anything but Oregon State nor will there be. That’s where we’re at.”

The Beavers (2-2) are coming off a 41-38 upset of then-No. 9 Oregon last week.

Utah defeated OSU in Corvallis last season, 52-7. This season, the Utes have failed to score a point in the second half in either of their games.

“We’ve got to have a better way to motivate our guys and get them in the mindset that you have to finish the game,” Whittingham said.

The coach added that there were a lot of positives that came from last week’s setback. But he’s realistic, too.

“No moral victories. I’m not trying to paint that picture,” Whittingham said. “But I thought we took a step forward as a football team from Week 1 to Week 2.”

Whittingham agrees with the premise that there are benefits to this youthful team going through learning experiences that will pay dividends in the future.

“The old adage, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you tougher.’ I think there’s lessons to be learned whether you win or lose,” he said. “This team certainly has a lot of lessons to be learned with the amount of young guys that are getting their opportunity.”

Whittingham added that it’s important that his players optimize those opportunities.

“The key is to continue to learn and not make the same mistake twice. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a new one. It’s our job as coaches to correct mistakes and continue to bring these guys along,” he said. “They’ve got a great attitude. There’s a lot of fight in these freshmen that are playing and a lot of ‘want-to.’ And for the whole team, for that matter. I don’t think there’s any lack of that.

“Even though we weren’t productive in the second half this past game, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Everyone is playing as hard as they can. We as coaches need to put these guys in better positions to make plays. We didn’t do a good enough job as coaches in the second half. That’s where we’re at.”

These days, it’s just about getting that first win of 2020.

“We need to take another step forward as a football team and just keep working hard and keep trying to get better and progressing,” Whittingham said.

A year after having so much at stake, the Utes are hoping their efforts result in a long-awaited win.

Utes on the air

Oregon State (2-2) at Utah (0-2)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN 700