Dicou: Utes can still salvage their season

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

I’m trying to think of scenarios in which the U football team’s season opener could’ve gone worse.

Still thinking.

Maybe if the Utes pre-game meal had been tainted with traces of salmonella.

That would’ve been unfortunate.

Or what if killer bees had filled the plane on the ride to Oregon?

Getting warmer.

There seemed to be a bad omen on the Utes from the start.

Sure enough, Ute fans’ hopes went from sixty to zero before the first quarter was in the books.

By halftime, a hush had fallen over my living room. The chips and salsa on the coffee table in front of me sat uneaten, forgotten in the dense fog of appetite-less gloom that had settled in my apartment.

Even my cat seemed to understand that something was amiss as he wandered along the outskirts of the room, sensing that a belly rub was out of the question.

He was right.

My hands were already occupied.

They were cradling my head.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. The Utes are in a bit of a bind.

(Actually, that’s the sugarcoated version.)

Here’s the reality: The Utes must face the next several games — somewhere in the three to five range — without two of the most valuable players on their roster. And one of them isn’t coming back at all.

Look at it this way. In the last 30 years, the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to either a quarterback or a running back 27 times. 14 winners were running backs; 13 were quarterbacks.

So, what ends up happening to the Utes in their much-hyped season opener?

The running back breaks his leg and the quarterback separates his shoulder.

The knife goes in. It twists.

Talk about a bad start to a year.

OK, so now what?

Are the Utes utterly and completely doomed?

It might depend on whether they are able to avoid having their spirits broken over the next several weeks when they face the likes of UCLA and Louisville.

With Brian Johnson and Matt Asiata in the lineup, the Utes would’ve been heavy underdogs against those teams. Without them, it’s probably going to get ugly.

But when it comes right down to it, non-conference games don’t mean a thing as far as the MWC title is concerned.

Sure, the likely blowouts will be hard to swallow. But over the next several weeks, the only MWC games that the Utes are scheduled to play are against conference basement-dwellers Air Force, UNLV and San Diego State. All three, even without Johnson and Asiata, are winnable games.

The truly difficult and meaningful stretch of the schedule doesn’t begin until Oct. 18 when the Utes take on TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. This game marks the beginning of a whirlwind of tough showdowns against CSU, Wyoming, New Mexico and BYU.

Brian Johnson should be back in time for those games.

But the question is, will there be a season to come back to at that point?

Will it be salvageable even with Johnson running the show?

Maybe, but only if the team hasn’t been emotionally destroyed in the meantime.

If the non-conference beatings take a harsh toll on Utah and they start “going through the motions” during Johnson’s absence instead of playing fired-up football, they’re in trouble. The Utes won’t simply be able to turn their desire back on when Johnson returns if they fall into a pit of despair while they wait for their quarterback’s shoulder to heal.

But if the Utes can take their hardships in stride — keeping in mind that Johnson will be back in time for the important part of the schedule — there might be a season for Johnson to return to.

It’s undeniable that the Utes have been dealt some unlucky blows. But how they respond to their misfortunes will say a lot about them as football players — and as people.

[email protected]