SALT LAKE CITY --- Before Utah beat the team picked this preseason to win a BCS conference Thursday night, the Utes beat Oklahoma and USC.
Don't go logging on to CFBDataWarehouse.com to prove that last statement wrong. Utah never met the Sooners or Trojans on the field, but the Utes did meet them on the recruiting trail. All three programs lost left tackles to the NFL (a first-rounder and two second-rounders), and all three wanted to capture the heart and mind of Fullerton (Calif.) College tackle John Cullen, the best junior college offensive lineman in America and the man voted Most Likely to Anchor a Line Immediately.
So when Cullen called Utah coach Kyle Whittingham in February to commit to the Utes, Whittingham knew he'd answered one of his glaring questions going into the season. "I did about three cartwheels," Whittingham said of the call. "I was elated."
But even Whittingham didn't know until after the Utes opened their season with a 27-24 overtime win against Pittsburgh that he'd answered that glaring question so well. Cullen, playing his first Division I game, stonewalled Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh's All-America defensive end. Romeus finished with four tackles. He never sacked or hurried Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn. "I'll be honest," Cullen said. "I surprised myself. ... I don't think he touched Jordan once. That was my whole goal going in." Whittingham expected a lot from the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Cullen, but even the coach couldn't have imagined the way the transfer -- working without help on most plays -- would dominate Romeus. "What he did tonight ... that's over and above," Whittingham said.
This is part of the reason Utah is headed to the soon-to-be Pac-12 and could contend quickly after entering the conference in 2011. Like Urban Meyer before him, Whittingham has managed to convince BCS conference-caliber players to come play in a non-BCS league. That fact should terrify coaches in the Pac-10, who now must contend with a Utah program that finished second in the nation two years ago and now can advertise to recruits a legitimate path to the BCS title game.
The other part of the on-field equation is Whittingham's ability to find players no one else wants and turn them into stars. When Brian Blechen committed to Utah in June 2009, Utah was his only offer. At the time, the Moorpark, Calif., native was a dual-threat quarterback. Thursday, the true freshman started at strong safety on a defense that replaced seven starters (a tackle, all three linebackers and three members of the secondary). That defense held Pitt tailback Dion Lewis, who rushed for 1,799 yards as a freshman, to 75 yards on 25 carries, but Blechen made the play of the night on a pass intended for receiver Mike Shanahan.
On the first play of overtime, Blechen stepped in front of Shanahan near the sideline and intercepted Tino Sunseri's pass. After that, Utes tailback Matt Asiata used five consecutive carries to pound his way inside the five to set up Joe Phillips for a 21-yard game-winning field goal that sailed through the uprights even though Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called timeout to ice Phillips.
"I don't think icing the kicker works," Phillips said. "I actually get a better look at it."
As Phillips spoke those words late Thursday, Whittingham shook his head. He had called timeout twice to ice Pitt kicker Dan Hutchins in the closing seconds of regulation. In both cases, the play went off before officials could stop it. Hutchins made the first, missed the second and then made the attempt that counted to force overtime. "Hey," Whittingham said of his icing attempts, "I was 1-1."
There might not have been an overtime period had Panthers receiver Jon Baldwin not gotten too excited when he looked up before a play late in the fourth quarter and realized he was uncovered. Baldwin signaled Sunseri, who quickly called for the snap and hit Baldwin for an apparent touchdown with 47 seconds remaining in regulation. Unfortunately for Pitt, Baldwin was moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. He was flagged for an illegal shift, and the touchdown was nullified.
The play typified the night for the Panthers, who burned most of their opportunities with penalties or careless mistakes. "We did things tonight just from a penalty standpoint," Wannstedt said, "that give you no chance to win."
Baldwin can probably be forgiven for his excitement on the fourth-quarter play. For the first three quarters, it seemed no one on Pitt's coaching staff realized the Panthers had one of the nation's best receivers on the roster. On two separate red zone possessions, the 6-foot-5 Baldwin was covered by 6-0 cornerback Brandon Burton with zero help from a safety. The Panthers never looked at Baldwin, and they settled twice for field goals.
On the other side of the field, the Utes seemed to know everything the Panthers would do before they did it. "I watched more film in the last week and a half than I have my whole life," Cullen said. Whittingham said his staff did a good job preparing the players, but he said the players studied plenty of film on their own.
What the win says about the Utes remains to be seen. We think Pitt is a top-25 team, but we won't really know for a few more weeks. Utah certainly looked like a top-20 team with a few rough edges left to iron out. In their final year in the Mountain West, the Utes should have fairly smooth sailing until an Oct. 30 game at Air Force. The next week, Utah hosts TCU. A week later, it travels to Notre Dame. Then we'll know as much as we can.
Whittingham won't let his team think about going undefeated or about attempting to crash the BCS title game. The Utes start Mountain West play next week against UNLV. Whittingham wants his players to think about winning the Mountain West. Everything else is out of their control. This will be the last year Whittingham has to say that. Utah received a golden ticket in June, and the Utes proved again Thursday that -- at least competitively -- they'll make a fine addition to the Pac-12.
Rival BYU has dominated the headlines in the Beehive State in recent weeks. The Cougars proved their football future is bright when they announced on Wednesday their impending independence, an ESPN contract and a six-game series with Notre Dame. Thursday, the Utes reminded everyone that the original BCS buster received its golden ticket for a reason.
As the Utes celebrated Thursday, a fan held up a sign. It read: "Independence=Nobody Likes You. Best Summer Ever." If Thursday is any indication, the best summer ever could turn into one heck of a fall.