As the Utah Utes prepare to host the Washington Huskies on Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City, the electricity of the coming moment begs for a historical comparison.
The last time Utah stood on the precipice of a mammoth breakthrough, Kyle Whittingham hadn’t yet made a name for himself as an FBS head coach. It’s true that Whittingham still owns a largely favorable reputation in the present tense, but as he leads his team onto the gridiron at Rice-Eccles Stadium against the No. 4 team in the country, there is a sense that Whittingham must prove himself again — at least one more time.
When he left Utah on January 2, 2005 — one day after leading the Utes to a perfect season and a Fiesta Bowl championship — Urban Meyer basked in the glory of his achievements, but no one could have imagined the extent to which he would rule college football alongside Nick Saban in the 21st century. Everyone knew Whittingham had large shoes to fill at the time, but the enormity of Meyer’s legacy has grown a thousand-fold in the ensuing 11.5 seasons. Adjusted for that development, Whittingham gets even higher marks for his work in the S-L-C. Filling those shoes that well ought to mean something.
“That well,” however, didn’t come into focus or find full fruition until 2008.
It was a Thursday night. CBS Sports Network aired what — eight years later — might still be the most significant college football game in the relatively young cable channel’s history.
One-loss TCU came to the Great Salt Lake to face unbeaten Utah in what was the Mountain West Conference game of the year. The MWC lacked divisions and a league title game; the early-November clash was the decisive moment in the conference’s season.
It was only after Utah won that game — 13-10, on a Brian Johnson touchdown pass with 47 seconds left — that Kyle Whittingham became, for himself and his fan base, the face of Utah football. If the 2008 season had become a solid 10-2 journey without a conference title or a major January bowl game, it’s easy to wonder if Whittingham would enjoy such power today. Would he have lasted over a full decade at the same job, a distinct rarity in a volatile profession?
The 2008 season and that win over TCU — which served as the gateway to his crowning moment, the 2009 Sugar Bowl thumping of Meyer’s formidable adversary, Nick Saban of Alabama — enabled Whittingham to forge a long and largely prosperous tenure at the University of Utah.
As the pages of history turn to 2016, however, Utah fans have a right to expect another similar achievement.
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have not won the Pac-12 South. Only once in the first five seasons of the Pac-12’s existence (the Pac-10 ending after the 2010 season) has the winner of the South lost fewer than two games. It’s not as though perfection or even near-perfection are needed to win the division. A 7-2 record generally gets the job done. Whittingham stalled at the start of the Pac-12 road, but he gave his car a tune-up, and in recent years, the Utes have gotten reasonable mileage out of their vehicle.
However, they’ve run out of gas — just enough to fall short of a division title and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Arizona was a nemesis for multiple years. A low-scoring loss at Arizona State (which is still to come on the 2016 slate) provided a familiar form of frustration. A home-field loss to UCLA last year was crucial in denying the Utes their moment. The Utes couldn’t do better than 6-3 in the league the last two seasons. They know they need seventh heaven in order to get where they want to go.
If they knock off Washington, they’ll get there, and they might even have a chance to go 8-1, giving them a chance to crack the New Year’s Six even if they lose a rematch to (11-1) Washington in the Pac-12 title tilt.
The stakes are enormous… just as they were in 2008.
What’s fascinating, in exploring this comparison to a greater degree, are the other ways in which TCU-Utah 2008 is similar to Washington-Utah 2016.
The 2008 TCU Horned Frogs, as it turned out, were a year away from being great.
In 2009, TCU missed the BCS National Championship Game (against Alabama) by a whisker, but coach Gary Patterson led the Frogs to a period of pronounced highs, beginning with a perfect regular season and an appearance in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl… where Petersen and Boise State were waiting.
If TCU was a year away in 2008, Washington sits on the ledge in 2016. Saturday might prove whether the 2016 Huskies are the real deal, or whether they still need a year of seasoning to make the leap from 10-2 (already an improvement in Seattle should it happen) to 12-0. That 10-2 to 12-0 progression is exactly how 2008 TCU morphed into the 2009 juggernaut which rolled through Utah and the rest of its regular-season competition.
In 2008, Patterson certainly gave the appearance of a coach who was headed for stardom in the business. He had recruited explosive athletes and nasty linemen. His defense — which stood up well against Utah on that Thursday in 2008 — possessed the signature combination of being ferocious yet very sound. Those traits can be found on the 2016 Washington defense as well.
Washington’s coach stands on similar ground, too.
Chris Petersen flourished at Boise State, but much as Urban Meyer wouldn’t be such a titanic figure in college football if his successes at Utah weren’t replicated at Florida and Ohio State, Petersen won’t acquire a larger place in the sport’s history if he fails in Seattle. Gary Patterson was pursuing a defining win in his TCU tenure in 2008. The situation is little different for Petersen and U-Dub in 2016. The declines of Oregon and Stanford have rendered those wins surprisingly irrelevant to a measurement of Washington’s greatness. Winning in Salt Lake City would give UW a true poker chip on the portfolio.
In many ways, Saturday’s Utah-Washington throwdown figures to be decided by the matchup between the Utes’ defense and the Huskies’ offense… at least if 2008 offers a guide.
The 2008 TCU offense was led by a man football fans know well.
Andy Dalton possessed evident talent and considerable upside when Whittingham and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen sized him up eight years ago. That natural talent exists in the frame of Washington quarterback Jake Browning as well.
In 2008, Dalton was a sophomore. In 2016, Browning is a sophomore.
Dalton didn’t perform poorly in 2008. Utah’s defense stood tall in what was a ferocious contest. Just the same, though, the redhead could not throw the one or two dagger touchdown passes inside the Utah 30 which could have given TCU a two-score lead at multiple points in the fourth quarter. The game marked an important turning point in Dalton’s career. He didn’t lose another regular season game at TCU.
Browning might stand on that same ledge of possibility and potential. In the present moment, no one knows where his career will go. Utah’s task — expressed thematically rather than tactically or structurally — is to force Browning to walk through the pain of an “almost” moment, the searing kind of defeat which might produce long-term growth, but guarantees short-term heartbreak.
One more on-field connection is worth exploring in this Utah-themed comparison of 2008 TCU and 2016 Washington: field-goal kicking.
TCU’s 2008 kicker, Ross Evans, missed two short kicks. If both of them had been made, Brian Johnson couldn’t have become a last-minute hero for the Utes eight years ago.
This year, Washington kicker Cameron Van Winkle has been wobbly on placekicks. He looked terrible in the spotlight game against Stanford and almost cost the Huskies in their close-shave overtime escape against Arizona the week before.
Chris Petersen has been known to suffer placekicking-fueled losses in his otherwise brilliant career. TCU’s Gary Patterson lost to Utah because of placekicking in 2008. The Utes would love to replicate the story in 2016.
Washington versus Utah, 2016 — Kyle Whittingham once again stands on the doorstep of a major achievement. It is hard to expel memories of 2008 from the mind’s eye.
The Utes hope that after four hours of mortal combat on Saturday afternoon, they’ll be able to revel in an achievement with a very familiar ring.