Preparing for bowl, Utah moves past late-season collapse

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham scoffed at the suggestion that his team doesn't have much to play for in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 28.

The Utes (8-4) started the season 7-1 and controlled their chances for the first Pac-12 football championship in school history, but fell out of contention by losing three of their final four games. Facing Indiana (6-6) in the Foster Farms Bowl doesn't have the same cachet as the Rose Bowl, but the Utes say they have something to prove.

''There's always something to play for,'' Whittingham said. ''You don't need a carrot out there. Just your competitive instinct, if nothing else. There's always reasons to play.''

The team was all smiles after Tuesday's practice with senior receiver Tim Patrick high-jacking safety Chase Hansen's interviews and other players teasing and joking around during the media session. It wasn't the look of a team still consumed by a lost opportunity.

The senior class will be playing its last collegiate game and some are looking to make one last impression on NFL scouts. And Whittingham wants a third consecutive nine-win season for the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.

''It was disappointing, the way the season ended,'' Whittingham said. ''A couple of those teams were Top 10 teams, so it's not like we were playing sisters of the poor. Nonetheless, we didn't finish how we wanted. But that's life. You have to bounce back.''

Hansen and Patrick acknowledged they lingered on the last month longer than other defeats. The offense sputtered in those final three losses and the 30-28 loss at home to a four-win Oregon team that eventually fired coach Mark Helfrich was a significant failure.

That's not how the 2016 Utes want to be remembered.

''Just show the nation what we're really made of,'' Patrick said. ''Things didn't really go our way this year, but there's still a lot of key players coming back next year and this is our time to show what they're made of.''

Hansen posted a team-high 86 tackles as a sophomore, but said he's still focused on the moment despite being set up for a monster individual season in 2017.

''It can be real hard to motivate yourself to keep going after a tough month, but that's what makes this team cool,'' Hansen said. ''We're excited to come play with each other and be able to go to the bowl game, regardless of what bowl game it is.''

Hansen has the luxury of not looking ahead as an established starter, but Whittingham confirmed this is a chance for younger players to make their first impressions for next season. There are additional practice opportunities for developing players and the coaching staff is taking notes.

''Without a doubt,'' Whittingham said. ''It's a great opportunity for our coaches to start to get a really good look at projecting spring ball depth charts and that type of thing. Who we like and who we think may be able to help us next year.''

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Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KareemCopeland

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