The Utes will focus on Idaho State, but fans are free to look ahead to USC

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Led by Bradlee Anae (6), Utah's pass rush improved in the second half last Saturday's 35-17 win over Northern Illinois. The Utes will try to pressure Idaho State's Matt Struck on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Kyle Whittingham can be forgiven for changing his mind twice in two sentences.

Asked what he hoped to learn Saturday against Idaho State in his Utah football team’s last nonconference game before visiting USC next Friday, Whittingham thought immediately of wanting to see kicker Jadon Redding attempt some field goals.

That makes sense, with the freshman having kicked only extra points after taking the job in the fourth quarter of the season opener. Yet those opportunities would require the Utes’ failing to finish drives, one of the reasons why Whittingham repeatedly has changed offensive coordinators in the past 10 years.

“I would like to see where Jadon Redding is, and give him a few shots,” Whittingham said. “Although we would rather not, because we would rather score touchdowns, but it would be nice to see him kick a few field goals this week.”

So that’s offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s dilemma, facing the Big Sky Conference school that helped launch the careers of him and Whittingham 30 years ago. The Utes need to move the ball just far enough for Redding’s sake — but not always into the end zone, as happened against Northern Illinois last week, when the offense scored touchdowns on all five trips inside the 20-yard line.

Those dueling goals frame the mixed value of playing an FCS opponent. The No. 11 Utes want to keep improving, get another gauge of themselves and give their front-line players the right amount of work to stay sharp and the healthy for the Pac-12 opener in Los Angeles in six days.

The Utes will sport a new helmet logo Saturday as part of a “Salute to the State of Utah.” Administrators also hope to improve the fan experience, as receiving complaints about congestion in the concourse last week during the home opener vs. Northern Illinois.

Because of next Friday’s booking with USC, the Utes’ scheduling of Idaho State as their final nonconference opponent worked out well. The schools originally agreed to meet in the season opener, according to the contract The Salt Lake Tribune obtained via an open records request. In negotiating an extension of the series with BYU in the summer of 2015, the Utes needed to move Idaho State to Week 3 (when BYU already was scheduled to play USC).

ISU administrators agreed, even though they could have demanded the full $550,000 guarantee if Utah had canceled the game. The Bengals didn’t open the 2019 season until last week, beating Division II opponent Western Colorado 38-13, and will play 12 consecutive game without a bye.

So while the Utes are playing ISU, their fans undoubtedly will keep track of USC vs. BYU, also being staged Saturday afternoon. The NCAA recently upheld its ban on live scouting of future opponents, as a cost-saving move. So Whittingham won’t have anyone watching the Trojans in person in Provo, relying on film study. The Utes also videotape the telecasts of games, occasionally picking up other personnel clues.

As for his own team's exercise Saturday, Whittingham may have some influence in creating chances for Redding. He ordered a fourth-and-1 conversion attempt at the NIU 31-yard line with a 28-17 lead last week, instead of a field goal. Other aspects of the Utes' operation worth watching Saturday are the makeup and performance of the offensive line and the work of the secondary against ISU quarterback Matt Struck.

Missing two starters, Utah's linemen didn't block well against NIU on short-yardage running plays. Yet senior tackle Darrin Paulo said of his group's performance through two games, “All I've got to say is zero sacks and about 200 [rushing yards] average.”

Utah’s defense allowed 202 yards passing to NIU’s Ross Bowers in the first half last week, before the pass rush heated up and the coverage tightened. Struck passed for 402 yards and four touchdowns against Western Colorado and has three outstanding receivers, although the Bengals are not at the personnel level of NIU, much less USC.


At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff: Saturday, 2:15 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks.

Radio: ESPN 700.

Records: ISU 1-0; Utah 2-0.

Series history: Utah leads, 7-0.

Last meeting: Utah 56, ISU 14 (2014).

About the Bengals: Coach Rob Phenicie is 11-12 in his third season at Idaho State. … The Bengals were picked seventh in the 13-team Big Sky Conference. … Former Ute defensive lineman Lei Talamaivao joined the ISU staff from Snow College in August, replacing another ex-Ute, Steve Fifita. Kam Yancy, a former Ute defensive back, coaches the Bengals’ secondary. David Fiefia, from Hunter High School and Utah State, coaches the running backs and special teams.

About the Utes: This is the first time in Utah’s Pac-12 era that the almost-annual game vs. an FCS opponent falls right before the start of conference play. … The Utes haven’t allowed more than 16 points to an FCS team in seven games as a Pac-12 member. … Utah’s 2014 win over ISU was highlighted by Kaelin Clay’s returns of a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns. … This game was chosen over two other Pac-12 Network telecasts for the national channel in the 2:15 p.m. MDT window.