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November 16, 2011Realistic or not, visions of Roses on New Year's Day filled the minds of wistful Utah fans going into the 2011 football season. Even the most reasonable fans allowed themselves that one moment at some point since the announcement last summer that Utah would join the Pac-12.
Most knew it wasn't likely, but that it was even an option was enough.
So we thought. Then the season hit, and along with it, the reality that Utah's 27-10 win over I-AA Montana State probably wasn't the big bang most expected, regardless the quality of that program within it's own division.
USC came and went, and depending on one's perspective the result was either glass-half-full or glass-half-empty. Ultimately, however, the loss demonstrated to most that the Utes could in fact stand toe to toe with the upper echelon of their new conference. Utah then traveled the short distance to Provo and proceeded to throttle their hated enemy, 54-10. Things were rolling, and a visit from Washington proved to be a realistic chance for a historic first-Pac-12 win.
Instead of building off of a moral victory of sorts and momentum from the BYU game, the Utes instead, responded with a 4-game conference lose streak.
Sure, players dropped like flies. Starters, no less. Still, on paper, Utah should have had the depth to carry on. Comparisons were drawn to the Utes' 2007 season where they lost three of it's first four games of the season, including a rare loss to UNLV, dropping Utah to 0-2 in league play.
For any Ute player with the program at the time, they will always point to one game, and one game alone as the motivation, or the turning point to the rest of their season.
Utah would rattle off 7 straight wins, earned a bowl game and won it.
The seventh year head coach acknowledged that the some comparisons can be drawn between the struggles this season with those suffered in 2007.
"There are similarities, you bet. There are similarities and disappointments early. Trying to figure out who we are, and who we were back then," Whittingham compared. "So I'd say there are definitely similarities between what went on in '07."
So many similarities in fact, that he used some of the same measures to right the ship and put the Utes on a three-game win streak this season, just as he did in 2007.
The big fix in 2007 was reportedly a meeting that was called by Whittingham, with just juniors and seniors in attendance, something he did again after an ugly loss to Cal this season.
"After the Cal game, I sat down with the juniors and seniors alone, with no other staff members and no other players but [the upperclassmen], and we talked, which is something similar we did after the disappointing [UNLV] game," Whittingham acknowledged.
Though Whittingham didn't reveal the details of what was talked about, he spoke in generalities about both meetings that turned out to be pivotal in both cases.
"We just had a heart to heart. It was more of them talking to me than me talking to them and finding out what the issues were," Whittingham expanded. "Really, the common thread was, particularly in the Cal game, we did not play with any passion or emotion. We were flat."
In spite of what came out in the meeting, Whittingham took full responsibility.
"That's my job as the head coach to make sure we're not flat," Whittingham stated. "I just wanted to make sure there was nothing in the fabric of the team that I was unaware of, or things they were disappointed in or thought we needed to change, or anything like that. I wanted to get my hand on the pulse of the team. That was the main reason for the meeting."
Other themes that came out of the meeting was a lack of preparation during the week as well as a lack of accountability and some team members not doing their jobs, or holding their weight.
"When you watched on film, it was just guys not doing what they were supposed to be doing, and everything was just off," said senior right tackle Tony Bergstrom. "It was definitely a result of something going on during the week. That was kind of the big issue."
What ultimately came out of it once it was all aired out was a total recommitment to the team concept and team goals.
"The biggest thing since we started winning is just the recommitment of everybody. It's all been everybody re-committing to the goals we have, or maybe reassessing the goals, then re- committing," Bergstrom explained. "It was kind of a wake up call to [find out] that guys obviously aren't committed or aren't putting in what they need to. So it was just like 'let's go. Let's figure it out.' That's kind of been the big key to the wins."
The Utes came out a changed team and have reeled off three straight wins, curbed the turnover issue, and have played with passion. If paying attention, some of the winds of change were brewing prior to the Oregon State game, with different energy and even verbiage coming from Ute practices.
"We're just going to change the whole approach. Not the things we're doing, I mean doing the same things, but doing them with more energy and passion," said senior corner Conroy Black during the week prior to the Oregon State win. "We just figured out some of things that were missing, and it wasn't very many things. Just some passion and playing that way, as a team, with everyone doing their jobs."
The theme in going through old interview tape keeps revealing itself, not knowing at the time that it would translate into a complete turnaround in the Utes' season. At the time, it was just words.
Now, three weeks and three wins later and even a remote shot at the Pac-12 South Championship, the Utes have indeed walked the walk after talking the talk.
In this case, however, it seems that the talk is paying dividends; a necessary event that could very well be the catalyst for recovering what was once a lost and disappointing season for players, coaches and fans alike.
"We've been really locking and being more prepared during the week, focusing more on ball security and playing with passion," said John White after the UCLA win. "It's been a big plus for us."
Safety Brian Blechen also acknowledged a total shift in gears from his teammates of late.
"I don't know what it was, but we just started clicking," Blechen described. "People are starting to trust each other and everyone's doing their job, and it's showing up."