Utah football: Utes excited for opener even if it is Idaho State (video)
If Idaho State beats Utah in its season opener, it will end a six-game losing streak to the Utes, a 20-game losing streak to FBS opponents, and a 44-game losing streak to teams not playing in Pocatello, Idaho.
It's been that bad: The average second-grader did not yet exist the last time the Bengals won a game on the road Â October 2006, against Northern Colorado.
So big-time college football returns to Salt Lake City on Thursday night, but only sort of.
Still, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said at Monday's news conference that he's "so excited I can't see straight" to formally open a 2014 schedule that ranks as one of the nation's most formidable.
Even with Idaho State.
Whittingham said scheduling decisions are made, with his input, by athletic director Chris Hill, but "If you look at the 120-some-odd Division I schools, I think most of them are playing an FCS opponent."
It has indeed become the norm for FBS teams to pay an FCS (read: warm-up) opponent to visit each year. Utah did so for its first three seasons in the Pac-12 and has one scheduled from 2016 to 2019.
Although Idaho State is an FCS team, picked to finish 12th in the Big Sky by league coaches, and a 42-point underdog, Whittingham said Utah is treating them as a serious threat. Just last year, Eastern Washington beat Oregon State, which beat Utah.
"It seems like just about every year, you hear about an FCS team getting an upset," he said.
Idaho State might soon be eligible for Utah residency. They play four straight in the Beehive State, dating from the end of last season, when they lost by a combined score of 91-20 to BYU and Weber State, to their Sept. 6 matchup with the Aggies in Logan.
They will play twice as many games against Utah-based teams this year (four) than Utah-based teams will play against each other (two).
So who are the Bengals? They're a team that went 3-9 last season, allowing 460 yards and 33 points per game. But they're also a team that returns eight starters on offense, nine on defense, and is newly freed from practice and workout time penalties enforced as a result of the previous staff's APR penalties.
"On offense, I think they return everybody except their receiving corps," Whittingham said. "... The entire offensive line, running backs, quarterback, tight ends. Defense, much the same. The corner position will be fairly new, but that's the first thing when you start looking at them, is [that] just about everybody is back."
Like many of Utah's Pac-12 opponents, Idaho State runs a 3-4 defense and a high-tempo, spread offense. And the guy at the helm of that offense knows what he's doing. Senior Justin Arias (who will earn his master's degree by December) passed for 3,547 yards and 24 touchdowns on a Big Sky-record 574 attempts last season.
That Idaho State lost leading receivers Luke Austin and Cam Richmond to graduation and Chad Hanson to Cal isn't much comfort to Utah's secondary, says Utah safety Brian Blechen.
"After watching their quarterback on film, new receivers is not really going to be a problem for him, I don't think," he said Monday. "He's really accurate with the ball, and as long as they know the playbook, he can get the ball to pretty much any spot on the field."
Fellow captain Junior Salt had similarly kind things to say about Idaho State's defensive linemen, who are not markedly worse than Pac-12 players, he said.
"You can't sleep on those guys," Salt said. "You can't take a play off. I've got to block them just as if I'm blocking a guy who's going to go in the first round or second round. It doesn't matter which guy is in front of me. He's their best guy."
Junior quarterback Travis Wilson said he hopes the Utah offense starts fast unlike two years ago, when Northern Colorado held the Utes scoreless through the first quarter and keeps pushing.
Whether or not it's a lopsided outcome, Whittingham said the Utes need to begin the process of learning about themselves.
"What we're concerned with this first game is us, and making sure that we operate the way we need to operate," he said.
If there are kinks to be worked out, Utah wants to do that playing Idaho State, not Fresno State or Michigan.
Idaho Stateat Utah
P Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network