A win is still just a win

By By Nick Pappas and By Nick Pappas

By Nick Pappas

Utah beat Michigan. A win is a win, isn’t it?

At the end of the national broadcast, the cameras panned the sidelines of the 108,000 fans in the Big House. Their faces were as ugly as the loss. The U came into a hostile stadium, played the most prolific team in college football history and quickly left with a narrow win and visions of BCS bowls dancing in their heads.

Brian Johnson called it the biggest win of his career. It was one more miscue away from being the biggest loss. Time will tell which Utah team takes the field week after week8212;the one that ran smoothly in the first half against a touted defense, or the one that tried to wrap up the victory in a yellow and blue bow.

Utah fans watching from home finally saw a healthy lineup featuring Johnson, Matt Asiata and Brent Casteel, but the game ultimately came down to one healthy body part8212;Louie Sakoda’s leg. His perfect 4-for-4 performance, including a career-high 53-yard attempt, helped the Utes pull a great escape in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Utah outscored the Wolverines 22-10 in the first half, and it shouldn’t have been that close. Michigan was handed a long pass interference in the opening minutes, and it started a parade of penalties for the Utes the rest of the day.

The stat of the game wasn’t Sakoda’s 4-for-4. It wasn’t Johnson’s 305 passing yards and a touchdown. It was Utah’s 137 total penalty yards. If it weren’t for these mental errors, the game had the makings of a blowout.

“It shouldn’t have been as close as it was, in my opinion,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But that’s a sign of a pretty good football team when you cannot play your best and still come away with a win, particularly in a venue like this.”

With this win safely behind us, the fans learned an important lesson. The Utes are talented and flawed. There are only two teams to worry about the rest of the way8212;BYU and ourselves. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig did what he was expected to do. He moved the chains. Johnson looked calm and composed, throwing perfect screens and threading long balls through traffic. Asiata showed the promise the fans have been waiting for, a big man who can pound it up the middle and drain the clock. Bradon Godfrey was one of the most versatile targets in the house, and the line was strong.

Yet, starting the second half, the team did exactly what we expect from a Ludwig offense. It held on just long enough to win. Instead of grabbing hammers and pounding out a lead, Ludwig sat in a hammock and stared at the ticking clock.

Afterward, the broadcasters on every network grouped together three teams8212;Utah, Fresno State and BYU. These are the “chosen three” that have the best chance of breaking into the elite club of the BCS. Other conferences look at the blue-collar Mountain West Conference with their noses in the air.

The Utes must prove they belong with the snobs. The five non-BCS teams that have received BCS bids since 2003 all averaged 31 points or better per game. The season Utah went to the Fiesta Bowl, its closest margin of victory the entire season was 14 against Air Force (49-35).

To bust the BCS, the Utes can’t just pack their lunchboxes and go to work. They have to hit the other teams in the face with them.

This much is sure: Utah still has a long way to go and a lot to prove.

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Nick Pappas