- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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These are trying times for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, a man known for his steely resolve who is unaccustomed to staring up at the standings.
But sometimes in football, as in life, things don't always go according to script and now Whittingham finds his coaching mettle pushed further than in his previous seven seasons as the Utes' head coach.
"It tests you, there's no doubt about that," said Whittingham whose team is 2-5 and has started out 0-4 in the Pac-12 for the second consecutive year. "But tough times never last and tough people do. That's our mantra here. We're going to keep fighting. We're going to keep taking an uncompromising approach to what we're doing day in and day out. We're not going to give in."
If you're a Utah fan looking for something to hang your hat on, consider this. Last year, the Utes were 3-4 on Oct. 22 and many questioned whether their streak of eight consecutive bowl games would be in jeopardy. They proceeded to win four of their final five and then they beat Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
And yes, the Utes take great pride in the fact that they have gone to nine straight bowl games and Whittingham's teams hold a 7-1 record in those games. And he's very much aware what's at stake.
"We understand, we can do the math," he said. "We're 2-5 with five to go and we have to come away with a minimum of four wins to continue the bowl streak. It's certainly a point of emphasis."
And when you look at Utah's remaining five games, none are against teams currently ranked in the top 25 (worth noting that Washington and Arizona were both ranked earlier this season) and the combined records of Cal, Washington State, Washington, Arizona and Colorado is 13-23.
"There are quite a few parallels between this year and last year," Whittingham said. "I think that's some experience that we can draw upon. We've been here before and we have to continue to respect our process. We have a preparation process and continue to do the things that have been successful for us and brought us success in the past. It's not time to panic or make wholesale changes. When you're in a situation like this, it does cause you to evaluate everything you are doing and take a good hard look at the process. But I don't believe it's a matter of wholesale change. It's just a few tweaks here and there."
Those tweaks could make all the difference. When you consider the Utes' last game against Oregon State, it might have been their strongest defensive performance of the year. But four turnovers by the offense -- including turnovers in the red zone -- left Whittingham rolling his eyes and his blood pressure rising.
"All I can say is there is a lot of parallels between life and football and you keep fighting and eventually things will turn," Whittingham said. "On this football team, there is no lack of effort and no lack of focus. Monday through Friday these guys handle their business. We just need to be better on Saturdays -- making those three or four plays, the momentum-changing plays that really determine the outcome. That's been our biggest problem is we haven't been able to make those plays."
With their third starting quarterback of the season -- freshman Travis Wilson -- about to make the third start of his career (first at home) this weekend against Cal, Whittingham said all they can do is keep plugging away. Things have turned in the past and he still believes they can turn in the present.
"We're close," he said. "We'll keep fighting. Make no mistake about it and we'll hammer away until we get it right."
19hChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell