Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham’s opening statement in his weekly news conference Monday included four words about his team’s 30-12 win over BYU.
“The rivalry game's over,” Whittingham said. “Time to move on to the next opponent.”
Whittingham took a similar approach on the Monday after Utah’s defeat of the Cougars last season, although that was mainly a case of the Utes preparing for the Pac-12 championship game vs. Washington four days later. His outlook this week also is understandable from a coaching perspective, with the players having reviewed the BYU game film Friday. Whittingham is determined to make sure the Utes give their Mid-American Conference opponent its due respect and avoid any emotional letdown.
Northern Illinois will visit Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, having gained some credibility in Utah’s program by making the Utes agonize throughout a 17-6 victory last September in DeKalb, Ill. Former Ute linebacker Chase Hansen’s interception return for a touchdown clinched the win, after NIU took possession for a potential go-ahead drive.
Asked what can be learned from that game, Whittingham said, “You’ve got to be ready to play every week, first and foremost. Give them credit. I don’t want to say we just slopped around. … [but] it’s just a testament that you’ve got to be on your game or you’re going to struggle.”
The Utes got away with a sub-par offensive performance at NIU. That experience should work in Whittingham’s favor as he prepares his team for the 2019 home opener. The Huskies will have Utah’s attention, after holding the Utes to 68 net rushing yards (due partly to six sacks) and one offensive touchdown. NIU began the 2019 season with a 24-10 win over FCS member Illinois State.
The unprecedented case – since the 19th century, anyway – of opening the season vs. BYU leaves the Utes lacking a marquee opponent until Sept. 20, when they launch Pac-12 play at USC. In that sense, a season-ending knee injury to USC quarterback JT Daniels may have been the biggest development affecting Utah during Week 1 of college football.
Whittingham had some degree of empathy for the Trojans: “Losing the quarterback was not ideal for them.”
USC will meet Stanford and BYU the next two Saturdays, with freshman Kedon Slovis as the Trojans' quarterback.
Whittingham also willingly fielded several questions about Thursday’s Utah-BYU game. He explained how freshman Jordan Wilmore became the Utes’ No. 2 running back for the season opener, how the kicking competition evolved in August, how the offensive line still lacks a dependable backup at some of the five positions and how a retooled secondary played well in Provo.
Wilmore gained 15 yards on four carries as the only back touching the ball in relief of Zack Moss, who ran 29 times for 187 yards. Devonta'e Henry-Cole and Devin Brumfield remain in the picture, Whittingham said, but “Jordan throughout fall camp had earned the opportunity to have the second-most carries. … He's really opened some eyes in the short time he's been here.”
As Whittingham indicated after the game, graduate transfer Andrew Strauch will continue to kick off for Utah, but freshman Jadon Redding will kick field goals and extra points against NIU. Redding at one stage of preseason camp was leading the competition, but his injury led Whittingham to reduce the field to two kickers, Strauch and Nels Haltom.
Redding kicked the last two extra points against BYU. Strauch had made a 41-yard field goal, but then hit the right upright on on extra point and missed a 25-yard field goal.
Whittingham is comfortable with “seven or eight” offensive linemen, he said, not quite a full two-deep roster. The linemen did not allow a sack in Provo, although quarterback Tyler Huntley attempted only 16 passes.
Utah continues to await an NCAA eligibility ruling about offensive tackle Bamidele Olaseni, a junior college transfer. The issues are related to Olaseni’s high school background in London, not his academic work at a Kansas junior college, Whittingham said.
Whittingham liked the work of his secondary against BYU, with three new players – counting Julian Blackmon’s move to safety. BYU quarterback Zach Wilson completed 21 of 33 passes for 206 yards.
Blackmon and linebacker Francis Bernard each returned an interception for a touchdown; cornerback Tareke Lewis’ deflection made Blackmon’s play possible and defensive end Bradlee Anae’s pressure resulted in Bernard’s opportunity.