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All that's left now is to ask 'What if?'

September 16, 2007|Chris Dufresne | ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

SALT LAKE CITY -- What if, on the road to 11-0 and a possible showdown with USC on Dec. 1, UCLA never made it to 3-0?

What if it all came undone, say, here, on a Saturday, about 4,300 feet above sea level, before a stunned-out crowd.

What if the final score were 44-6, Utah, and after the game, on the field, Utes running back Darrell Mack said of the Bruins:

"That last touchdown drive they came out on the field and they were whining and crying. And we just kept driving the ball down the field. They lost their composure. They had to be thinking they were going to win the game going in. That's the wrong thing to think about us. . . . That's an overrated team."

What if limp-along Utah, playing with its backup quarterback, backup running back, backup receiver, backup guard and probably its backup equipment man, didn't care that UCLA was ranked No. 11 and had 20 starters back from the team that beat USC last season?

What if?

Shoot, it all came to pass, run and tackle, sure as UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell walked off the field escorted by two police officers into the early sunset of a soured season.

It will be remembered by Bruins fans as the Wipeout at Wasatch.

Rice-Eccles Stadium can now boast of hosting the opening ceremony for the 2002 Winter Olympics and 2007 closing ceremony for UCLA.

The Bruins can recover from this to win games, maybe even the conference, but it can't really recover from this -- at least not this year.

Utah, to be clear, is not Appalachian State. The Utes are only three years removed from an undefeated season and a Fiesta Bowl win. They are actually a quality Mountain West Conference program when half of its roster is not immobilized and/or infirm.

These Utes, however, began Saturday's game devastated by injuries.

They lost starting quarterback Brian Johnson (shoulder) and running back Matt Asiata (knee) in the opening loss to Oregon State. More injuries would follow.

Utah fell to 0-2 after losing last week to Air Force, and you could sense where the build-up to this game was leading.

The Utes had never defeated UCLA in eight previous efforts. This was supposed to be the ninth.

To the experts, the game wasn't even close.

"Nobody gave us a chance," Utah senior safety Steve Tate said.

The postgame scene rivaled the on-field atmosphere in 2004 after Utah beat Brigham Young to clinch a Bowl Championship Series berth for the school.

Saturday, players lingered on the field to hug friends and families. Some stared at the scoreboard.

Did Utah just do what the scoreboard said it did?

"Yeah, I guess we did," Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham said, almost in disbelief. "I guess that's what happened."

While Whittingham was pulling out all the stops, UCLA, well, just stopped.

Whittingham went so far as to burn the redshirt on freshman quarterback Corbin Louks just to add a run wrinkle to the Utah offense.

Louks subbed in for starter Tommy Grady and ended up fleecing UCLA with, of all things, a touchdown pass.

It was Utah that used imagination by tricking UCLA with a fake field goal that led to a touchdown.

It was Utah defensive back Robert Johnson who refused to give up on an apparent touchdown pass when he forced a touchback by stripping Bruins receiver Marcus Everett of the ball as he stretched for a touchdown that was about to cut Utah's lead to four points in the third quarter.

Talk about a season-changing momentum moment.

"I had a feeling I could get to it," Johnson said of his effort.

The only feeling UCLA had was sick.

Utah is not Appalachian State, but UCLA is now Michigan.

Two weeks after the No. 5 Wolverines dropped out of the Associated Press poll after their loss to Appalachian State, the Bruins can expect a similar, see-you-later poll slide.

UCLA did what a great team is not supposed to do -- rest on credentials not yet validated.

But you know how it goes. . .

"They're starting up Pac-10 play," said Grady, the former Huntington Beach Edison High quarterback who threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns against the Bruins. "They probably saw an 0-2 team. But in college football you can't really overlook anybody."

UCLA doesn't have to worry about top-25 lessons learned because it will probably no longer be in the top 25.

This is yet another major ink spill in Dorrell's portfolio.

Saturday's defeat might be the most inexplicable in his four-plus seasons.

Does it top UCLA's stunning Las Vegas Bowl loss to Wyoming in 2004?

The Bruins thought they were headed to the Insight Bowl to play Notre Dame until Texas knocked California out of the Rose Bowl. That sent UCLA to a "lesser" bowl to play a lesser team. Except Wyoming turned out to be the better team.

What about 2005?

UCLA moved to 8-0 and No. 7 in the nation after an incredible comeback win at Stanford only to lose at Arizona the next week, 52-14.

Last season you had an exhilarating upset win over arch-rival USC being undermined by a belly flop against Florida State in the Emerald Bowl.

Dorrell has been able to lift the program to sporadic high points but can't seem to keep UCLA's chin above the chin-up bar.

Even with the stadium flush with shadows, you couldn't blame one UCLA assistant coach for keeping his sunglasses on as he walked off the field.

It was a different day for Utah and Coach Whittingham. As he sat down for his postgame interview, Whittingham crumpled up a piece of paper and swished it from about six feet into a nearby trash basket.

"Everything's going my way," he said.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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