Close losses fuel the Utes’ fire heading into matchup with No. 5 Oregon


— Chris Samuels

We are five days away from the date that’s been circled on Utah fans’ calendars since the 2014 Pac-12 football schedule was formally released — the day 5th-ranked Oregon takes the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium for a late-night showdown with the Utes.
Despite the close loss on the road in Tempe on Saturday night, the Utes remain in the national AP rankings, dropping to No. 20. The Ducks remain at the No. 5 spot, even though they manhandled a Stanford team that has given them fits over the past couple seasons, 45-16.
So while this week’s game has lost some of the potential luster that it would have had if Utah had escaped Tempe victorious and jumped near the top 10 in the national rankings, it’s still vastly important for the Utes’ chances of potentially winning the Pac-12 South.
Looking at Utah’s recent history in playing top competition, a close loss might not be the worst thing in the world for Utah’s preparation for Oregon.
The last two times the Utes upset top 10, nationally-ranked opponents were last year’s shocker against then-No. 5 Stanford at home and this year’s road upset of then-No. 8 UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
In both cases, the Utes were coming off of close losses.
In 2013, it was a 34-27 loss to UCLA where Travis Wilson threw six interceptions, the last being on the final drive where the Utes were looking like they could potentially take the game to overtime. This season, it was a one-point loss to lowly Washington State, where the Utes gave up an early 21-0 lead in the first quarter on their way to a 0-1 start to Pac-12 play.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham has noticed that his players seem to step up a level after disappointing losses and that their weekly preparation never wavers, even in tough situations.
“They take care of business Monday through Friday,” Whittingham said. “I would expect this week to be no different … this season’s going to be full of opportunities, so this is another one coming up this week, and they’re looking forward to it.”
One player who is certainly looking forward to once again welcoming a top-5 team to Salt Lake City is defensive end Hunter Dimick, who played a role in last year’s upset over the Cardinal. He said the team’s preparation won’t vary too much, but that focus is raised when a team like Oregon comes to town.
“I feel like we prepare for every team the same way,” Dimick said. “Oregon comes in as the marquee team, as Coach [Whittingham] said. Obviously we’re going to have to practice even harder and be more disciplined in what we’re doing.”
Dimick also said the pain felt after a close loss motivates some players, himself included.
“It hurts, but it’s got to be used as fuel for the fire and kind of change the mentality to, ‘Well, I have to prove myself again,’ ” he said.
While Dimick and the rest of the Utah defense will be facing a challenge in quarterback Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Ducks’ offense, they’ve already proven they are one of the top defenses in the conference, if not the entire country.
The Utah offense will also have to prove themselves, and it all starts with the passing game that was only able to put up 57 yards against the Sun Devils on Saturday.
Ute receiver Kaelin Clay said it’s up to the receiving corps to start doing their part by getting open, making big catches and making the Utah offense more balanced. He acknowledged that playing Oregon will be an incredible challenge but that the Utes need to worry about their own deficiencies more than the Ducks’.
“They’re a great team, they have one of the top two corners in the nation … they have a great defense, but right now we’re not worried about that,” Clay said. “We need to worry about us right now. We need to worry about the holes we have in this offense right now, and we need to fix them. We need to fix them quick.”
Kickoff for Utah vs. Oregon is set for 8 p.m. MT at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
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