It’s always hard to predict how a team will come out for a bowl game. Will it have motivation to grab an extra win? Are the players just happy to be there? Throw in the inevitable problem of some teams playing without their head coach and things get even trickier. That’s the situation Colorado State found itself in heading into its bowl after coach Jim McElwain took the Florida job at the beginning of December.
The Rams fell behind early 14-0 on Saturday and were never able to shake the python-like grip of the Utah defense as the Utes won 45-10 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl in (you guessed it) Las Vegas.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer wrote about the oddity that is an interim coach in a bowl game and spoke earlier in the week with Colorado State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, the interim coach for the Rams, about how he was preparing the team.
"I walked into the meeting and told them that this is status quo," Baldwin told Kramer. "This is your football team. You got us to be 10-2. No head coach called a play, no head coach made a tackle. It was you as a unit that understood what we had to do and followed through, and these coaches are still here to do the same.”
This may be the only game Baldwin coaches as the head man at Colorado State as the Rams continue to search for McElwain’s replacement. A win in his audition would’ve helped but who knows by how much. Coming off a 10-win season and with an interim athletic director in charge, Baldwin’s guess is probably as good as anyone’s as to who Colorado State will hire. At the very least, if he’s not the pick, the 59-year-old knows the program and could be asked to stick around whenever the next coach is announced.
As for Utah, a bowl appearance for the first time since 2011 seemed like cause for celebration. And playing against one of the nation’s best Group of Five teams, this was a chance to showcase not just how good the Utes really were but how good the Pac-12 was as a whole this season.
The Utes looked to have their hands full defensively against an explosive Colorado State offense that has three of the best players at their respective positions in the country. Quarterback Garrett Grayson, receiver Rashard Higgins and running back Dee Hart all have the ability to make a play at any moment, and Utah couldn’t just key in on one (or two) of them at any given time. But the Utes clamped down and held the Rams to just 278 total yards.
Utah, which averaged 24.1 points per game in conference play this season, had 24 points in the first half alone against the Rams. The Utes struck first after a big gain by Kaelin Clay got them down to the 17-yard line. Two plays later, Tyler Wilson scrambled eight yards to put Utah up 7-0 just two-and-a-half minutes into the game, and the Utes scored again on their next possession on a 16-yard pass from Wilson to Delshawn McClellon. Utah rushed for 359 yards on the day, helping it build its lead from there.
Kyle Whittingham's team was near the bottom of FBS in plays of 20-plus yards but had three just in the first quarter against the Rams. The first-half offensive explosion was what Utah lacked in its four losses this season and what kept an otherwise dominant team in the other two phases of the game from challenging for the Pac-12 South title. It’s a bit old-school to see a team like Utah that runs the football as well as it does, has weapons at both the punter and kicker positions and plays mean, nasty, sacktastic defense. When you add in the offensive execution that Utah showed today, that's a complete football team capable of beating just about anyone.
The Utes were one of the Mountain West’s best teams in Urban Meyer’s two years and during Whittingham’s tenure, notching wins in seven straight bowl games. After a loss in the 2010 Maaco Bowl, Utah was Pac-12 bound and suddenly in unfamiliar territory.
Negotiating the move into a new conference is never easy. But after rebounding from back-to-back 5-7 seasons to capture nine wins this year, Utah is in business. Consider the rest of the Pac-12 on notice.