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Utah stumbles into season with 33-17 loss to No. 20 USC

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes warm up as they prepare to host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Now that the University of Utah football team finally opened its season, how to judge what this pandemic-fueled season actually is will be an ongoing topic of discussion.

On one hand, the Utes spent much of Saturday evening’s long-awaited opener vs. No. 20 USC looking like a team recently removed from a COVID-19 outbreak, now attempting to play its first game of the season on Nov. 21. To that end, there is an argument to be made that this four-game regular season is nothing more than an exhibition and an early glimpse into what the 2021 season could look like.

The fact of the matter is that these games are being played, these games do count, and Utah has a lot of things to deal with over the next three weeks following a 33-17 loss to the Trojans inside an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“This is not a season where we’re just working on trying to get guys better for the future, we want to win now,” 16th-year head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We’re competing now, we want to win now, but it’s going to take some time to get these guys up to speed. We knew that going in.”

Whittingham and his staff have plenty to chew on before another game week begins on Monday. The bad includes the quarterback situation, which was the biggest offseason storyline, and remains the biggest storyline going into next week.

Redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising was revealed as the starter during pregame warmups, meaning he beat out Jake Bentley during training camp last month. Rising was 3 for 6 for 45 yards, but had an ugly interception early, then a second-quarter fumble inside his own 10-yard line that led to USC’s first touchdown, a Vavae Malepaei two-yard score to give the Trojans a 10-3 lead.

On the fumble, Rising hurt his shoulder and exited for good with Bentley coming on in relief. The South Carolina graduate transfer finished 16 for 28 for 171 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Those two picks were part of five Utah turnovers.

Postgame, Whittingham said Rising would be evaluated Sunday, but took the quarterback situation a step further later during his news conference.

“Now, Jake is probably going to be the guy,” Whittingham said. “Cam’s shoulder took a pretty good shot. If Jake’s the guy, we’ll rally around him.”

Added Bentley: “This was our first game and our first opportunity to show what we’re all about. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that tonight. The defense did a great job, but offensively, we have to play better and that starts with me.”

Utah’s defense yielded 357 total yards, but that was still good enough to give the offense a chance to win the game.

Nephi Sewell, a safety-turned-linebacker, was a revelation. His 23-yard scoop-and-score in the second quarter tied the game at 10, while his interception later in the period stemmed the tide after USC had recovered a Ty Jordan fumble the previous drive.

All told, Whittingham lauded his defense, which features nine new starters and an awfully young secondary. Highly touted freshman Clark Phillips III and true sophomore JT Broughton both played well against what is considered the Pac-12′s best wide receiver unit. Safeties Nate Ritchie and Vonte Davis also started and saw extensive playing time, something neither had been asked to do previously. In the case of Ritchie, like Phillips III, he is a true freshman.

In staying with the awkwardness of playing college football in the middle of a global pandemic, as of late Saturday evening, Utah, which had season openers canceled the past two weeks, apparently doesn’t know for sure who its next opponent is.

The Utes are scheduled to play Arizona State in Tempe, but the Sun Devils have been dealing with massive COVID-19 issues and have not played the last two weeks. Whittingham indicated Utah’s next opponent is up in the air, but he expects to know who it is by Sunday.

“We got our work cut out for us, but we’ll come back Monday with a great attitude and have a great workweek,” Whittingham said. “We need to find out who our opponent is first, and we should find that out later tonight or tomorrow. Life goes on, so we have to continue to work hard and get better.”

Storylines

• Playing its latest-ever season opener after cancellations the past two weeks, Utah fell to USC, 33-17, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

• Cameron Rising started at quarterback but left early in the second quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. Jake Bentley came on in relief of Rising.

• Britain Covey dressed and went through pregame warmups, but did not play after dealing with hamstring tightness during the week.

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