It was a front-and-center, everyone-was-watching, then oh-my-goodness -- gaff.
Kaelin Clay has no one to blame but himself.
He had a touchdown, a beautiful deep-ball pass reception from quarterback Travis Wilson, seconds into the second quarter of Saturday’s 51-27 loss to No. 4-ranked Oregon, but he dropped the ball on the 1-yard line, a blink before crossing into the end zone.
Clearly, he believed he’d crossed the line because, c’mon, nobody messes up that badly on purpose.
Nobody does something like that just to see how quickly it goes viral.
To recap: With the Utes already ahead 7-0 early in the second quarter, Wilson – in was in for injured starter Kendal Thompson – chucked one deep down the field, hitting Clay’s outstretched hands.
From there Clay turned on the burners and cruised in for what initially looked like 79-yard touchdown reception. But foolishly – casually – dropped the ball too early. Ducks linebacker Joe Walker noticed the refs hadn’t signaled a touchdown. Alertly, he picked up the ball and rumbled all the way back to the other side of the field, scoring a TD that took the game from 14-0, Utes, to a 7-all tie.
It was a 14-point swing and there is no doubt it deflated the Utes and sapped their confidence and energy.
Utah rallied, eventually, but never did overcome the effect of Clay’s mistake. Beating a team like Oregon is hard enough as it is; it requires execution, focus and discipline. Beating the Ducks on a night when you’re beset by awful injuries and game-changing mental errors is next to impossible.
The takeaway quote from Clay after the game was this: “I take full responsibility for what happened tonight. I will take the criticism and the blame. It was just one of those things. I got excited and let the moment just get away from me. Again, I take full responsibility for this."
Truly, what Clay did was one of the damndest things I’ve ever seen not just in a football game, but in any sporting event.
Perhaps it’s not the No. 1 all-time gaff, but I assure you it’s on the short list.
I also feel safe in assuring you nobody feels worse than Clay himself. In the moments after Walker’s return, TV cameras caught Clay on the sidelines waiting for replay officials to confirm what seemed obvious.
For a second there, I swear I thought Clay might become physically sick, right then and there.
But while pointing out, unequivocally, that Clay has no one to blame but himself, I cannot help but appreciate the way he responded to it.
It’s a fine example of taking responsibility and standing up like a man, so two thumbs up for that. And two thumbs down for even making such a boneheaded mistake in the first place.
And yet …
And yet pinning the outcome of the game on Clay is rather silly. When it happened, there were still three quarters left to play. That left more than enough time for bad play-calling, more turnovers and a rash of bad injuries.
"Our guys would have kept playing, no question,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We wouldn't have flinched, but that was huge.”
There’s no way the Ducks would have simply rolled over. Even the Utes had gone ahead 14-0, Oregon had already established its athletic superiority and the magical play of Heisman Trophy-bound quarterback Marcus Mariota would have continued.
There is no doubt who deserved to win the game, no question as to which team was better and more talented. To say, simply, that Clay’s gaff cost the Utes the game is to deny the Ducks’ greatness.
Now with two straight Pac-12 losses and three overall, Utah might still end up in a bowl game but the dream season fans wondered about two weeks ago is now just that … a dream.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo