SALT LAKE CITY — Because this is the age of outrage and overreaction, it comes as no surprise some fans of Utah football are calling for Kyle Whittingham to be fired.
After all, a spot in the Cactus Bowl was at stake.
Or was it the Heart of Dallas Bowl?
Wouldn’t want to miss one of those.
That’s all you need to know about Whittingham’s poorly conceived decision. People are ticked. He called a timeout with 23 seconds to go and Washington on its own 30 with no timeouts left. Whittingham later said he was trying to get the ball back and be in position to kick the game-winning field goal. Instead, the Huskies got two big gains and toed the game-winner on Saturday.
But fire him?
Reality check for Utah fans: You’re not USC, Alabama or even UCLA if you’re looking for a coach. Firing a coach who has the best bowl record in college football history would make Whittingham’s timeout look Einsteinian. The Ute coach has won 70 percent of his games as a head coach and 91 percent of his bowl games — best in NCAA history. More importantly, he has made Utah a respected opponent in the Pac-12. The Utes haven’t won a division championship outright, but they’re not chopped liver. They’ve beaten every team in the conference.
Do they have issues? Right now, more issues than Sinead O’Connor. Their offense, for much of the year, has been terrible. Their defense isn’t up to its usual standard. But they are putting players in the NFL at a furious rate, and their recruiting class last year was rated 33rd nationally by Scout.com.
It’s no secret Whittingham’s teams have problems moving the ball. But it was defense that lost Saturday’s game, more than Whittingham’s call. It allowed two scores in the last two minutes after leading 30-23.
With 1:55 remaining, the Huskies faced a fourth-and-10 at their 39 but quarterback Jake Browning got off a 14-yard completion. On second down from the Utah 30, Browning landed a 28-yard pass that set up the tying score with 58 seconds remaining.
“Our defense played really well for 58 minutes,” Whittingham said, “but you’ve got to play the full 60.”
After a three-and-out by Utah, Washington got the ball back but ended up at its own 30. Whittingham stopped the clock, after which Washington completed passes of 48 and 31 yards, to set up the winning field goal.
Had Whittingham let the clock run, the game would have gone into overtime.
“You want to go over that again, we will,” Whittingham said at his Monday press conference. “I’ll be happy to.”
He said the game plan all night was to be “aggressive” in both its play and play-calling.
Whittingham said he was “betting on our defense to make a play,” after which Matt Gay would kick a field goal. But a Washington punt would have left the Utes far beyond field goal range.
Given Utah’s frequent red-zone problems, Whittingham couldn’t have felt good about outlasting a nationally ranked team with an NFL-bound quarterback. Yet those odds were probably better than recovering a fumble or getting an interception.
With or without Whittingham’s help, the Utah defense was awful in the clutch. If the defense does its job in the closing minutes, overtime isn’t an issue.
“You can debate that both ways — most people would play the safer route and let (the clock) expire, but that’s not what I was about in that game and that situation,” Whittingham said.
Criticism of Whittingham’s decision is warranted; calls for his job aren’t. Utah is a nice program, but not good enough to fire a coach with Whittingham’s current resume. A lot of BYU fans would be happy to have him. So would several Pac-12 teams. In fact, he was asked Monday about his interest in the vacant UCLA job.
“I have a ton of interest in the Utah job,” he said. He went on to say he pays no attention to outside openings. Whittingham’s name came up the last time UCLA hired a coach.
It’s been a disappointing year for Utah, but the timeout didn’t keep the Utes out of bowl contention. A 4-0 start turned into unrealistic anticipation. Considering eight Utes were drafted last spring, there was reason enough to lower expectations. The Utes can still get to a bowl with a win over Colorado.
That’s as much as originally should have been expected.
The timeout? It’s one judgment call in a season that had already turned south.