Utah Utes’ long-awaited season-opener vs. USC offered mixed results

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ty Jordan (22) as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the final three-quarters of spring practice, four different schedules, four different season-opening opponents, a virus outbreak within the program, consecutive openers canceled on the eve of the game earlier this month.

That list is the broad view of what it took for the University of Utah to finally play a football game on Saturday evening, forgetting the fact it was the last Power Five team in the country to do so.

All of the waiting, but especially the COVID-19 outbreak that yielded cancellations each of the previous two Saturdays vs. Arizona and at UCLA, respectively, only added to the intrigue when the curtain finally went up at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes ultimately represented a mixed bag in a 33-17 loss to the 20th-ranked, Pac-12 South-leading Trojans.

Utah committed five turnovers, one inside its own 10, another inside its own 25. The Utes’ defense yielded 357 yards of total offense but played well enough to give the offense opportunities to make it a game in the fourth quarter. Fourteen offensive plays into his first collegiate game, Cameron Rising injured his shoulder on a fumble and exited the game, and Jake Bentley came on in relief. Utah’s young but talented new secondary looked just like that most of the night — young, talented and capable, but in need of more seasoning.

On and on the good vs. bad went against the Trojans, but finally, Utah is on the board, albeit with a loss. There are mistakes to fix, other factors to laud, and in the end, the Utes will push forward this fall with three, maybe four more games to show what they can do.

Six takeaways

• The biggest offseason storyline was who the quarterback would be. We are now officially into the season, and the biggest storyline will, at least for now, remain who the quarterback is.

On first-and-10 from his own 15 yard line early in the second quarter, Rising dropped back and was strip-sacked by Marlon Tuioulotu. Defensive end Connor Murphy fell on it, and USC needed two plays to score and go up, 10-3.

Rising injured his shoulder on the play, giving way to Bentley, who played the rest of the way, going 16 for 28 for 171 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Rising could be seen on the Utes sideline during the second half in street clothes.

Kyle Whittingham said postgame that Rising would be evaluated Sunday but later admitted that Rising’s shoulder “took a pretty good shot” and that Bentley is “probably going to be the guy now.”

Clarity on the situation, if any, is not expected until Monday morning when Whittingham next meets with reporters.

• The COVID-19 outbreak earlier this month has dominated conversation, but it should be noted that Rising won the quarterback job coming out of training camp.

The long-held assumption was that Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina with 33 career starts on his resume, would eventually overtake Rising, who took a redshirt last season following his transfer from Texas and had not taken a collegiate snap.

Rising, who is notably more mobile than Bentley and spent last season in the box with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig during games, came on late in camp and wound up forcing everyone’s hand.

After Whittingham decided on a starter in late October, he declined to name him publicly, but he did say the decision was unanimous. Whittingham echoed that Saturday sentiment Saturday night, that the QB decision coming out of camp was unanimous.

Read into that however you see fit.

• Britain Covey dressed and went through warmups at Rice-Eccles but did not play Saturday night after he reportedly dealt with hamstring tightness late in the week.

There does not appear to be any cause for alarm, but his absence did alter things quite a bit. That was one less pass-catching option for Rising and Bentley, and one less option in terms of punt and kickoff returns.

That Covey dressed and warmed up may indicate that he could have played in an emergency situation, but nothing about Saturday qualified as an emergency situation. Plus, given his injury history, what would have been the point?

After taking a redshirt last season, the byproduct of his surgically repaired right ACL not allowing him to go full speed after injuring it in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game, Covey showed up at spring practice in March looking like the dynamic slot receiver and return specialist he was before the injury.

• Utah’s offensive line got beat up a lot of the night against a USC defense that consistently sent pressure and got to the quarterback, making life tough for Bentley.

That’s the quick version. Now, for the nuance.

The Utes started three freshmen along the offensive line: left guard Keaton Bills, right tackle Jaren Kump and right guard Sataoa Laumea. That group wasn’t dealing with an FCS or lesser FBS program to ease into the season, either. It dealt with what is likely to be the toughest opponent it faces in the next month.

Additionally, the offensive line is thought to be one of the position groups hit hardest by the Utes’ COVID-19 outbreak earlier this month, which means reps and continuity likely haven’t been consistent lately.

If you think this isn’t a big deal, that this season is “an exhibition” or that it “doesn’t count,” let’s go to Whittingham for his thoughts on how his offensive line played.

“I thought our O-line would take more control of the game than what happened,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t really push people around like I had hoped we were going to.”

The term “baby steps” applies here; these things are not going to happen overnight.

• Aside from the offensive linemen, as expected, Utah played a lot of freshmen Saturday night.

Cornerback Clark Phillips III and strong safety Nate Ritchie started in the secondary, and Sione Fotu started at one linebacker spot. A handful of guys Whittingham has sounded high on — like defensive ends Van Fillinger and Xavier Carlton, and cornerback Faybian Marks — all saw the field.

One true freshman who stood out? Multidimensional running back Ty Jordan, who had seven carries for 32 yards, plus a first-quarter catch from Rising that went for 21 yards on a dump off. Jordan came off as advertised. Fast, shifty, capable and an immediate contributor among a crowded running backs situation.

Phillips III, highly touted and expected to contribute immediately this fall, got picked on a bunch in USC’s passing attack but played well in finishing with nine tackles.

Nobody said this was going to be easy, especially on defense, where Utah is trying to replace nine starters from last season, including the entire secondary. There was a lot of cushion given to Trojans receivers Saturday night, a lot of man-coverage looks, but this was Game 1.

Things likely start looking different, more cohesive as this weird, truncated schedule presses forward.

• Rice-Eccles Stadium has officially sold out 64 consecutive times dating back to the 2010 opener vs. Pitt. On Saturday, the 45,807-seat structure was empty, even devoid of friends and family of players and coaches, because of the pandemic.

With no crowd, and ambient noise being pumped in throughout the night, the scene from the press box was weird, awkward and off-putting. It felt like more than a scrimmage but certainly less than a major college football game involving a ranked team and two Power Five contenders.

Again, we go back to Whittingham, who has seen a game or two inside Rice-Eccles.

“Having that stadium empty was bizarre,” Whittingham said. “It was something you just have to experience to understand it. It was weird.”

Player of the game

Nephi Sewell, junior, linebacker

The safety-turned-linebacker has long been slotted into that spot as a starter, but on Saturday, he essentially reverted back to safety.

As Whittingham explained it, the Utes did not stick with their typical nickel package, which employs three cornerbacks and two safeties. For matchup purposes, they went with three safeties and two corners, with Sewell backing up into a safety spot for much of the night.

Regardless of the position, Sewell had a big night. His 23 yard scoop-and-score off a Kedon Slovis fumble early in the second quarter tied the game at 10. He later picked off Slovis inside the Utah 15 after Jordan fumbled the ball at his own 23 a few plays earlier.

Sewell finished with 10 tackles, two of which went for a loss, in addition to the fumble-recovery touchdown and the interception.

“As a defense, I feel like we played really well,” Sewell said. “There were obviously some mental mistakes; we have to clean those up. If we’d done that, personally, I feel like it would have been a way closer game.”

Up next

Utah will travel to Tempe to take on Arizona State, but the Pac-12 has moved the game from Saturday to Sunday, with the kickoff time still to be determined.

The Sun Devils have been hit hard by COVID-19 and have not played since a Nov. 7 season-opening loss at USC. Whittingham said late Saturday night he didn’t know who the Utes’ next opponent would be, but expected to have that clarified at some point on Sunday. The Pac-12 gave that clarity Sunday, indicating that Arizona State believes it will be in a position to play a game.