Reflections of a Utah man

Nov. 9, 2002. From my seat in the student section, it has become obvious that Utah football has hit rock bottom. Sure the Utes beat UNLV that day, but it’s a mere flicker of a glow in a cataclysmic abyss of a season.

The Utes, returning home from a road trip and riding a six game losing streak, ran out onto the field at the start of the contest. Given the reception, they may as well have been running into a monastery. The losing streak was bad, but the deafening apathy in the stadium that night was the most difficult part of being a U fan.

Officially, the announced attendance was about 20,000. In reality, you’d be reaching if you counted half that. I could have started shooting a live Ute Thunder at the student section and not have to worry about hitting anything but bleachers.

Ute fans wanted to send a message, and there was no better way to send it than through the thousands of empty seats and the indifference showed by those brave (bored?) souls who were actually there.

If Ron McBride had any hope of saving his job going into that game, those hopes were snuffed out by kickoff. The only thing worse for an athletic department than having disgruntled fans is having fans that don’t give a rat’s ass.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Saturday, as a journalist, I stood on the sideline, dismayed that Utah had “only” managed to get 44,000 fans to this game.

Of course, there were no empty seats in the MUSS, who would show up if the Utes played a road game at Antarctica State. The MUSS existed in 2002, but was called the less catchy “Football Fan Club” and had maybe 100 members. At the fateful UNLV game, all of the FFC members in attendance could have fit into a Cooper Mini.

With 63 points this past Saturday, Utah reached 412 points on the year. That’s seven points more than the school record, with two games still to play.

The 2002 team?

They rang up 249, in a conference that was probably worse than the MWC this year.

Versus CSU this weekend, all the stars came out to play. Alex Smith had four touchdown passes, bringing his season total to 24, and further strengthening his Heisman argument.

Marty Johnson ran through the Ram line for three touchdowns of his own and Paris Warren and Steve Savoy hauled in 16 passes for a total of more than 200 yards between the two of them.

On defense, Morgan Scalley had possibly his best collegiate game, returning a fumble for a touchdown and intercepting two passes.

The funny thing is that most of the big contributors to this massive 2004 success were sitting on the sideline the night of that 2002 debacle, unaware just how fast their fortunes would change in the coming months.

Rewind back to that fateful night in 2002: Brett Elliott had replaced Lance Rice at quarterback two weeks back. Rice was pretty much the symbol for what Ute football had become. He never did anything truly bad, usually keeping the Utes in games, but never gave us any excitement, either. And as evidenced in the truly excruciating Air Force games of 2001 and 2002 and the BYU game of 2001, Rice could somehow grab defeat from even the most secure victory.

In short, he summed up Ute football perfectly.

Elliott played pretty well, but unbeknownst to McBride, the coach had his trump card sitting on the bench, fuming over having his redshirt pulled for two lousy plays at San Diego State.

Alex Smith finished the year with two completed passes on four attempts. He had a robust four passing yards (this year he seems to get more than that when he gets sacked) and one interception. If anyone said that the skinny kid from San Diego would be a finalist for the biggest award in college football in only two years, they would have been sent to the psych ward in Research Park. Of course, Smith probably wouldn’t be where he is today if he didn’t have Steve Savoy and Paris Warren.

Savoy was on the bench that night with a nasty knee injury, sustained in fall practice. Coming into the year, Savoy won a starting job as a true freshman. Perhaps the football gods wanted to save his eligibility for a not-so-doomed season, and banished him to crutches. Next to him was Paris Warren. Warren had transferred from Oregon before the season, where ironically he had perhaps contributed to McBride’s eventual firing. Warren had thrown a 50-yard touchdown pass on a reverse, beating the U, and adding another big play given up by the frustrating Utes. The eventual Utah receptions record holder was sitting out the season, per NCAA transfer rules. Watching the comatose offense that season, could Warren have even fathomed where he’d be this year?

Joining the sideline party was Marty Johnson, who oddly enough was a senior back then too. Johnson had led the nation in rushing through two games, but got hurt when left in too long in a blowout win against Indiana.

Given the kind of personal and physical woes Johnson would go through in the next two years, his saga might be the most surprising success story in this whole jumble.

For apparent comical value, the 2002 Utes did actually make use of Scalley-as a punter. Can you find a better punch line to a joke of a season? Looking back at that year is like reading a history book. How can it be that we were complaining about Utah beating CSU by “only” 32 points this weekend, when fans two years ago would sell their first born just to see the Utes get to 32 points at all? How can fans be complaining that the games get boring too quickly when Utah jumps out to a 50-0 lead or are annoyed that they are only seventh (seventh!) in the BCS standings?

The ‘Me of 2002’ must be jealous.

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