The Utah football program’s run for the roses will come next week, when the Utes will make their first appearance in the Pac-12 title game with a Rose Bowl berth on the line.
Utah’s first Pac-12 South football championship, coming in the only year when the nonconference rivalry game vs. BYU is scheduled at the end of the regular season, has created a new issue for coach Kyle Whittingham. He’s not thinking about Rose Bowl possibilities just yet, but the Kentucky Derby — or the Preakness, an event he regularly attends as a guest of apparel provider Under Armour — may have crossed his mind Monday.
Asked about the potential of strategy of holding out key players Saturday night against BYU in advance of the Pac-12 title game Nov. 30, Whittingham used a comparison to thoroughbred horses in dismissing that approach.
“They love to run. That’s what they do,” he said during his weekly news conference. “They’re born to run. That’s what they enjoy. Our players are warriors and they’re born to compete.”
Whittingham continued, “I don't know how you sell that to your players, saying, 'Hey, we're going to sit everybody and not let you have a chance to finish the season,' particularly the seniors. That's a tough sell.”
Whttingham noted that Utah's opponent, Friday's Washington-Washington State winner, will have one day's extra rest in next week's title game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. He spoke of “pros and cons on both sides of the argument” of resting players, understanding some merit in “maximizing your chances for the championship game.”
Yet he shot down that idea as quickly as he acknowledged it, without giving any added significance to the rivalry game. “That's not our approach,” he said. “We're not looking past that game, just like we wouldn't look past it if it was anybody else on the schedule.”
Whittingham did think of a bigger picture, though, when he mentioned that beating BYU would enhance Utah’s bowl possibilities — if the Utes (8-3) lose to Washington or Washington State and not qualify for the Rose Bowl.
In the Pac-12′s usual scheduling format, the Utes would be playing Colorado this weekend — without having clinched the South title. In that case, they wouldn’t have any personnel options or reason to look ahead to next week. Utah’s 2019 and ’20 games vs. BYU are season openers. This one-time November meeting balances the Pac-12′s schedule of five conference games on the final weekend, while USC hosts independent Notre Dame.
Last season, USC had a bye before the Pac-12 championship game, a trade-off for having played 12 straight weeks.
More on Hansen’s ‘targeting’
Whittingham expressed more frustration about the targeting penalty called against star senior linebacker Chase Hansen, who was ejected in the first quarter of Saturday’s 30-7 win at Colorado. “Targeting really seems to be an arbitrary call and capricious … random, if you will,” he said. “So it’s very frustrating.”
The consolation is Hansen's penalty came in the first half, so he will be available against BYU.
“I wasn’t too happy when it happened, but I’m over it,” Hansen said. “In the moment, I was pretty upset; obviously disagreed with it, but people aren’t perfect.”
Gay misses cut for Groza repeat; Wishnowsky is a Ray Guy finalist
Utah kicker Matt Gay was named the Pac-12 special teams player of the week for the second consecutive week and the fourth time this season. Gay kicked field goals of 33, 31 and 51 yards on a partially snow-covered field, although his streak of 21 successful boots ended when he missed a 56-yard attempt in the fourth quarter.
Yet somehow Gay, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner as the country’s best kicker, was overlooked in Monday’s selection of this year’s three finalists: LSU’s Cole Tracy, Wyoming’s Cooper Rothe and Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt.
Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky, the 2016 Ray Guy Award winner, is a finalist for the 2018 honor.