It's a lesson that Utah fans have had to learn time and time again in Utah's two and a half seasons in the Pac-12. The margin of error for success in what has become one of the premier conferences in America is razor thin.
For a program that was becoming accustomed to high levels of success in the Mountain West Conference, Pac-12 play has been a bit of a rude awakening for the Utes.
Thursday night's loss to UCLA was another example of that fact. After battling back from a 10 point deficit with an Andy Phillips field goal and successful onside kick, Utah was in striking distance of completing the comeback and sending the game to overtime. Tight end Jake Murphy came an inch away from dragging his foot inbounds on an acrobatic catch that would have tied the game, but alas the comeback wasn't to be.
Despite the loss, there were several positives to pull from the UCLA game. The defense was aggressive and held one of the most potent offenses in the nation to well below its averages in points and yardage. The secondary appears to have turned the corner and has improved significantly since the beginning of the season.
Perhaps the most astounding thing in the game is that despite turning the ball over six times, Utah went toe-to-toe with the number 12 team in the nation and nearly escaped with a win. There is still a talent and athleticism gap between Utah and the elite teams of the conference. However, the Utah players have shown resilience and toughness in their ability to fight through adversity and compete.
The fact remains that Utah needs wins in a bad way in conference. So what is Utah doing about it? In the short term, look for the offense to make adjustments in an attempt to limit mistakes from the quarterback position. Travis Wilson's play is largely responsible for Utah's offensive improvement this season. However, mistakes by Wilson in the second half of games has prevented the Utes from winning two very winnable games.
Wilson is a smart quarterback and has high expectations of his play. He will continue to improve as he sees more looks from different Pac-12 defenses, and Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson will do all they can to shorten the learning curve. Don't be surprised if we see adjustments to personnel or scheme with the receivers and offensive line to help the young quarterback out. The bottom line is that most of the mistakes that have been hurting the Utes are correctable through film study and coaching, so not all is lost.
In the long term, the Utah coaches recognize that the program needs more speed and athleticism across all positions, and are addressing that on the recruiting front. The Utes are actively recruiting skill position athletes in an attempt to better match up with teams like UCLA moving forward. Although the Utah program still might not be a name brand football program yet, smart athletes will see the potential in the program as well as the opportunity for early playing time. That alone could be a draw for several of the elite prospects that are lined up to visit over the coming weeks.
Losing isn't fun for players, coaches or fans. However, this year's Utah team has fight in it. As long as the Utes keep fighting, bounces will start to go their way. A large sign in the newly-minted football facility reads "Respect the Process." That admonition is something that players and fans alike should take to heart.
Although the wins aren't there yet, there are reasons to believe that things will get better. For the sake of everyone involved in the program, we can only hope that the improvement happens sooner rather than later.