The buck stops here?

The U football team has been here before-just last year, in fact. Similarities between this year’s team and the 2005 version continue to mount as the Utes once again find themselves in a precarious position going into their annual showdown with UNLV.

Once again, as was the case one year ago, the Utes have stumbled into a midseason losing streak and must salvage their season against the Rebels. Last season, it worked out quite well. Utah had just lost three games in a row to fall out of MWC contention, but finally won its first road game of the season with a 42-32 victory in Las Vegas.

But that, as they say, is all in the past, and this year’s Utes have all new problems and yet another season to save. They just hope history can repeat itself against the Rebels.

“I think that, throughout the season, we’ve just been pressing and trying to make too many plays,” Ute senior Eric Weddle said. “No one’s really giving us a chance, and we like it that way.”

The Utes, despite all their struggles, do have a few things going for them: First, the final four-game stretch of the season features three stops at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It’s huge,” Weddle said. “We like playing at our home crowd, and hopefully we’ll play better.”

Second?well, it’s not necessarily much of an advantage to say they’ve “been here before,” but last year’s group won three of its last four. Might it come up with a similar late-season surge this time around?

That question and more will start to get a little clearer Saturday afternoon as the Rebels-riding an extended losing streak of their own-come to Salt Lake City for a 2 p.m. tilt with the Utes.

“We’ve got UNLV coming to our place on Saturday. They’re having some struggles of their own. I think they’re on a six-game skid,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But we can’t overlook anybody at all. We have to give our entire focus to this game Saturday, come out and try to get a win.”

Last year’s meeting in Las Vegas proved just the remedy for a struggling Utah group. Though the Rebels ultimately posted 32 points and put up plenty of offensive yardage, much of that came during mop-up duty; in fact, the Utes dominated play, erupting for 506 yards of total offense-with Quinton Ganther and Brian Johnson contributing three touchdowns each.

The 2006 Utes will need that kind of offensive production if they expect to continue their historical dominance over the Rebels. Consistency has been hard to come by on the offensive side of the ball all year, a major contributor to the team’s 4-4 showing through the first two-thirds of the season. Last week’s loss to New Mexico was a perfect example: The Utes, slow starters at the beginning of the year, established themselves early, building a big early lead and looking well on their way to an easy victory.

But the Ute offense, perhaps because of complacency or perhaps because of New Mexico’s defense, did little after taking a three-touchdown advantage, scoring its only second-half touchdown after Eric Shyne’s fourth-quarter interception gave the Utes possession deep in Lobo territory. Aside from that, the Ute offense was all but nonexistent after the half.

Though Utah is scoring at the second-highest rate in the Mountain West, the performance has been nothing if not extremely disappointing. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has come under fire for conventional and predictable play-calling and ineffective game plans, and the road troubles that plagued the team all last season have showed up once again. But, as the Utes proved last year, a late-season flurry can make everyone forget, at least temporarily, what came before.

“We’ve got a whole lot of season left,” quarterback Brett Ratliff said. “That’s all we’ve got to look at-we can’t focus on what’s happened in the past, we’ve just gotta focus on what’s coming up and what we have in the future.”

Making things more difficult are the absence of star defensive tackle Kelly Talavou-not to mention nagging injuries to Stevenson Sylvester and Kyle Brady that have kept them sidelined as well-hurting an already-vulnerable defensive unit (at least if the New Mexico loss is any guide).

And so the third act of the Utes’ season begins-the goal, once again, being another postseason berth. A team that has lost three of its last four now has to at least reverse that trend in order to still be playing come Christmastime. The Utes were up to the challenge last year-can they do it again?

“We want to go into the bye week with some confidence, with a win heading into the three-game stretch against three tough teams,” Weddle said. “We’ve got to have as much momentum as we can.”

Christopher Peddecord

If U head coach Kyle Whittingham had his way, he’d lease Eric Weddle from the San Diego Chargers for the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl to help stop Navy’s potent offense