Forgive Ute Head Coach Ron McBride if he had trouble recognizing his 1997 team at times. Picked to battle for the Western Athletic Conference Mountain Division title, McBride saw his favored Utes fall to teams like Tulsa, Fresno State and non-conference foe Utah State. But, just when it seemed impostors would sabotage Utah's season, a vintage Ute team produced a few upsets of its own. In the final four weeks of the season, the Utes knocked off three of the top four teams in the conference and bullied themselves into a tie for second.
They finished as predicted - runners-up in the WAC Mountain Division - but hardly followed a route their coaches would have chosen. Of course, there were reasons behind Utah's circuitous path. Eighteen different players started for an offense beset by injuries to key players. The offensive line took a beating from injuries early on and lost honor candidate Luis Park to knee surgery in the third game. Junior running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, the WAC preseason player of the year, averaged 90 yards per game through five games. But an ankle sprain and later a hamstring strain stalled the prolific runner and he was not a factor again until the final two games of the season. First-year standout wide receiver Daniel Jones, who led the WAC through three games by averaging nearly 118 yards per game, was felled with a serious ankle sprain. Jones returned to the lineup three games later, but never returned to full speed. Injuries hurt more than just the offense. The defense also battled the situation, although a bevy of talented backups did a great job of damage control.
In part due to the injuries, McBride found himself fretting over a lot of "coulda, woulda, shoulda's" before his team erupted for wins over division contenders New Mexico, Rice and Brigham Young. A "coulda" was Utah's surprising loss at Tulsa. All signs pointed to Utah romping against the WAC's worst defensive team and Utah could have found itself in a postseason bowl had it won. A "woulda" McBride regrets came at Fresno State. If the Utes had only handled Fresno's blitz, they would have likely come away with a win. A 'shoulda' cost Utah a victory against SMU. A long Ute fumble return was called back due to an inadvertent whistle and SMU responded to the gift with the game's first score. The Utes battled back, only to miss a PAT in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game at 20 and sent it into overtime. Instead, they lost by one.
But McBride's Utes tantalized him by playing very well at times during that span. After losing to USU, his club bounced back to defeat Louisville, 27-21, on the road. Fuamatu-Ma'afala rumbled for 143 yards and Juan Johnson rushed for two touchdowns to lead the offense. Phil Glover won WAC defensive player of the week for a second straight week after pounding Louisville with seven tackles, two sacks and a tackle for loss. The Louisville win kicked off three straight victories by the Utes, who went to Ft. Worth, Texas, and handed TCU a 32-18 loss the very next week, then demolished UTEP, 56-3, at home. Utah scored on its first six possessions against the Miners and a then-healthy Jones had 187 receiving yards and three touchdowns. All three Ute quarterbacks threw touchdown passes and they combined to complete 17 of 18 passes. The defense was equally as impressive, holding UTEP to 248 total yards and letting the Miners to convert on just five of 15 third down attempts.
Just when the Utes showed what they could do and should do, they lost games on successive weeks to Fresno State, SMU and Oregon. And the upcoming schedule looked gloomier yet, with three conference contenders lying in wait - all of whom needed a win over Utah to take the title.
This time, Utah's reputation as a quick change artist served it in good stead. First, Utah sent New Mexico tumbling from the top of the division on October 25. The Lobos came to town with only one loss and the league's best offense. Their glossy numbers took a hit that day, when Utah pulled off a 15-10 upset and snapped a three-game losing skid in the process. The defense was magnificent, holding the WAC's total offense leader to a paltry 196 yards. The Lobos managed only 37 yards rushing - 200 yards below their season average. Utah collected a season-high five sacks for 27 yards in perhaps its best defensive effort of the year. Offensively, Juan Johnson rushed for 95 yards and Kevin Dyson had 75 yards in receptions and a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Dyson celebrated some career milestones as well, getting his 600th receiving yard of the year and going over 2,500 receiving yards in his career.
Unfortunately, the "other" Ute team showed up the very next week, sputtering twice at the goal line and stubbing its toe against Tulsa on November 1. The Utes returned home and had two weeks to contemplate the prospect of their first losing season in seven years. When they returned to action on November 15, the Utes showed what they thought of that notion. Rice, owner of the WAC's best rushing offense and in a four-way tie for first place, arrived in Salt Lake hoping to clinch at least a share of the title. First, they had to clinch a piece of Utah's new starting quarterback, Darnell Arceneaux, which they couldn't do. The elusive Arceneaux, making his first career start at quarterback, completed 11 of 19 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. The freshman also ran for 63 yards and another score to help Utah knock the Owls from their perch, 31-14.
All tied up in the win-loss columns at 5-5, one chance remained for the "real" Ute team to stand up and be counted. Ahead was the annual grudge match with Brigham Young in a sold-out Cougar Stadium. What better opportunity to recognize some preseason expectations? With Arceneaux again at the controls, Utah did just that. The Utes jumped to a 10-0 lead by virtue of a 4-yard touchdown run by Arceneaux and a Tommy Truhe field goal before BYU wrested control with two unanswered touchdowns. After a scoreless third quarter, Arceneaux and Truhe again combined for 10 points, made possible in part by Dyson, who finished his superb four-year career with nine catches for 143 yards. The defense kept BYU under lock and key in the fourth quarter and Utah celebrated its fourth victory in the last five years over the Cougars, 20-14.
No post-season bowl games came calling after Utah's fast finish, but the Utes took some consolation in the individual accolades sent their way. Utah led all Mountain Division schools with six first-team all-WAC citations. Making the first team from Utah were: receiver Dyson, linebacker Glover, defensive lineman Pene Talamaivao, offensive lineman Danny Davis and defensive back Clarence Lawson. Dyson also made the first team as a special teams player.
As a team, Utah also made a point. Though they hit a few detours on the way, the Utes finished the season as contenders, not pretenders. Their late charge gave them a share of second in the WAC and the win over BYU assured them of a seventh straight .500 or better season.
And if there's one thing McBride can recognize as Utah's second all-time winningest coach, it's a winning season.