Utes to lock horns with TCU

It was supposed to be a grudge-match between two Mountain West Conference heavyweights. Two teams with national acclaim, riding modest winning streaks and looking to stake their claims to the national top-25.

That’s what the Utah/TCU showdown was supposed to be before both teams suffered embarrassing losses on their home fields, removing some of the luster from Thursday’s meeting at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Just two days after MWC foe BYU throttled the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, Boise State made mincemeat of the Utes Saturday afternoon.

Now, both teams have to regroup-and quick. Should TCU drop a second-straight conference game, its chances of the MWC crown will be all but shot. Should the Frogs prevail, Utah would be a mediocre 3-3-just like it was at the halfway point last year.

“What we have to do now is put this behind us,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “(Boise State) is a non-conference game. You don’t want to downplay it like it never happened. But the point is that we’ve got seven conference games in a row ahead of us. So we have to refocus ourselves, correct the errors and deficiencies that were there on Saturday.”

Those deficiencies included a passing offense that netted just 51 total yards and a defense that yielded nearly 400 yards of offense for the Broncos-not exactly a prime way to precede the arguably biggest conference game of the season.

While it may be difficult, players say they have to forget about the loss to Boise State as soon as possible.

“We’ve just got to regroup,” senior Eric Weddle said. “Everyone goes through tough losses?spirits are high.”

While the Utes are quick to point out that the losses to both Boise State and UCLA have no bearing on the team’s goal of winning the Mountain West Conference, in resuming their conference slate they are at another considerable disadvantage: They have had two fewer days to recover from the physical Broncos, as TCU has had a whole week to get ready, having played BYU last Thursday.

“Of course you’d like more time to recover, but we have a short week and there’s nothing you can do about it,” defensive end Alex Puccinelli said. “You always want to get some more days in there, get your body relaxed, but that’s football-you’ve got to adapt to it.”

The Horned Frogs not only represent one of the Utes’ toughest competitors for MWC supremacy, but Thursday’s game is also the first of seven conference games in a row-the bulk of the schedule. After TCU, the team goes back on the road for consecutive games against Wyoming and then New Mexico, another Thursday-night tilt.

The TCU ballgame could set the tone for the rest of conference play-but Whittingham emphasizes that it’s important they get the Frogs out of the way first and wash the foul taste of Boise State out of their mouths.

“This is conference. We’re 1-0 in the conference. Our goal each and every year is to win the Mountain West Conference,” Whittingham said. “(The BSU loss) has nothing-from a standings standpoint (to do with the conference standings)-psychologically, we’ve got to overcome it. The way to refocus the team is that everything is right in front of us. Everything that we want to accomplish is right in front of us.”

The Frogs derailed the Utes last season in the third game of the season, as they overcame a 10-point deficit to prevail in overtime in Fort Worth. That not only snapped Utah’s winning streak, but put the Utes in an early hole in the conference standings. And this year, Whittingham said, TCU may be even better-perhaps even better than Boise State.

“It does not get any easier this week,” Whittingham said. “TCU is every bit of the football team-in fact more so-than Boise State, as far as sheer speed. They’re a very fast football team. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Associated Press

BYU defensive lineman Hala Paongo (70) chases TCU quarterback Jeff Ballard (16) during the first half of a football game, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006, in Fort Worth, Texas.