Story and slideshow by MATT ELLIS
On the foreign battlefield of the Pacific-12 conference, the University of Utah Utes football team was beaten down early. Many Utah fans expected big things out of their team going into the season, but a combination of injuries and dismal offensive play led to a rough start.
In the weeks leading up to the season opener, Utah was viewed by many as a dark horse contender to win their division and play in the Pac-12 Championship game. A perennial powerhouse, the University of Southern California, was on probation and ineligible for postseason play, and the Utes had the good fortune of avoiding recent stalwarts Stanford University and the University of Oregon on the regular season schedule.
The biggest question among analysts throughout the state was the health of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn. After having offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder, questions proliferated as to how effective he would be. Coaches limited his reps during the preseason and it was widely acknowledged that his arm strength seemed to have diminished.
But on opening night, the only thing that mattered was that the Utes were back on the football field. Rice-Eccles stadium was packed with more than 45,000 fans ready to cheer their team to victory against a division 2 opponent in Montana State University.
The Utes won that first game, but it was less than impressive. In front of 45,311 fans, according to ESPN.com, Utah scored only three points in the second half, and the 27-10 victory was too close for comfort against a physically inferior opponent.
Jump forward a few weeks and the team lost three of the next four games with the lone bright spot coming in a 54-10 drubbing of rival Brigham Young University. The last time the Utah football team had a stretch like that was the beginning of the 2007 season when the Utes stumbled to a 1-3 start. The highest attendance at Rice-Eccles stadium that season was 43,788, according to ESPN.com, whereas the stadium has not seen less than 45,000 at any game this season.
The Utes needed five tries to record their first win in the Pac-12 conference. But let the record show that Ute fans have continued to support their team in spite of hard times.
The early-season rough stretch included Utah’s first two home Pac-12 games. The first, against the University of Washington, turned out to be an embarrassing 17 point defeat during which Jordan Wynn was lost for the season due to another shoulder injury. One week later, though, another packed house of 45,089 turned out for the game against Arizona State University. The Utes fell again, this time by 21 points.
“I admit, I left a few of those games early,” said Shawn Ryan, a Utah alumnus. “They got pretty ugly.”
This is the first time in this city that crowds of such a large size have seen their team struggle so mightily in an environment where they are normally so successful — 22-2 in the last four seasons. This season they were 3-3 at home.
Going into the blackout game on Oct. 29, 2011, Utah was set to play an underachieving Oregon State team after three straight blowout Pac-12 losses. The season was on the verge of being a bust, yet 45,017 people still showed up dressed in their black Utah gear. Coincidentally, that number exactly matches the listed maximum capacity for Rice-Eccles Stadium, according to the University of Utah athletics website.
Clearly, interest in the football team is as high now as it ever has been. In spite of the many struggles this season, near-record crowds fill the stadium for every home game, buying up all the Utah hats, stickers, shirts and water bottles that they can find.
“Being a part of the Pac-12 really helped increase sales and exposure for the University,” said Mike Cherry, who works in the marketing department for the University of Utah bookstore.
According to Cherry, virtually anything with the Pac-12 logo is flying off the shelves of the bookstore.
Around campus, there are more stickers on cars and more U logos on bikes, sweatshirts and backpacks than any time in recent memory. Utah fans, specifically students, seem to be finding a renewed sense of pride in their school, as well as in their new conference.
Assistant Athletics Director Manny Hendrix, who works closely with the Crimson Club at the U, says that Utah alumni have been engaged by the new challenges the team faces, and that donations have been up.
“Our alumni base has been really excited and overjoyed to see the team compete with these bigger schools,” Hendrix said in a phone interview.
Unfortunately, a lot of the increased interest comes from seeing how Utah will measure up against more talented teams, which has been a double-edged sword.
But even after three straight Pac-12 losses by 17 points or more and the loss of the starting quarterback, Ute fans continued to show their support. Even those who didn’t make it to the stadium stayed behind their team.
Tyson, a night manager at a downtown sports bar called Lumpy’s, said that people who went in there to watch the games “kept their faith,” even through the tough times.
Though this season has seen some good wins, some fans are already looking forward to next season. Shawn Ryan thinks that next year’s success “depends on the quarterback.” Though he isn’t sure that Jordan Wynn is the best option going forward, he thinks that Utah can find success in its second season in the Pac-12. “I think they could do well next year, maybe 9-3,” Shawn said.
Another fan, Lexi Stevens, has enjoyed the games in spite of the multiple letdowns. She was a cheerleader in high school, but is just starting to really get into football, and says she will “definitely” be going to more games next year.
Asked what to expect for the future, she smiled and said, “They’ll have more time to improve, they gotta do better, right?”
Only time will tell if that is the case.
“I’m sure there are games our coaches would like to have back, but you’re watching football at the highest level,” Hendrix said, when asked about his thoughts on the season. “The talent level doesn’t get any better, you have to respect that.”
Because attendance has been so high this year, there have been rumors among those close to the program that Rice-Eccles Stadium will be renovated to accommodate more fans. Either way, you can be sure that the place will be packed to the brim and the Utah fight song will be heard from several blocks away.