Utah football changes on the fly after Washington becomes the Utes’ next opponent

Kyle Whittingham conducted his weekly ESPN700 radio show Tuesday evening in between two pieces of news.

Seventy-five minutes before the broadcast began, the Pac-12 announced that a Sunday morning game between the University of Utah and Arizona State was cancelled, the Sun Devils continuing to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak and unable to reach the league’s 53-player threshold necessary to play the game.

Forty-five minutes after the show ended, the Pac-12 announced what everyone assumed all day was coming, a Utah-Washington matchup, Saturday night at Husky Stadium in Seattle (5:30 p.m., ABC).

In between the two pieces of news, Whittingham spent the first segment of his radio show talking about how he and his staff have essentially been in limbo in terms of early game preparations. Sixty percent of early prep had been geared towards Arizona State, 40% to Washington. With Arizona State canceled by the time Whittingham went on the radio, there was still no official clarity on an opponent, but there was at least a heavy assumption on what was coming next.


When • Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MST


“If we had just found out today and done no preparation if it is, in fact, Washington, we’d be two days behind, but given the preparation that we have made so far, we’re probably just a day behind, so we’ll catch up tonight,” said Whittingham, who semi-jokingly noted he and his staff would be working until 2 a.m. instead of midnight to get caught up. “We’ll get the players caught up to speed tomorrow and, really, no complaints at all as long as it’s a level playing field, and whoever we play hopefully didn’t know sooner than us that the game was on. We’ll make it work, and that’s just what we’ll do.”

Utah’s opponent wound up being Washington because, like the Utes, the Huskies were in need of a game. The Huskies were scheduled to play the Apple Cup on Friday night at Washington State, but the Cougars, like Arizona State, are unable to meet the 53-player threshold while dealing with their own virus outbreak. Washington State’s game last week at Stanford was a late scratch due to COVID-19 positives and ensuing contact-tracing protocols.

There was some drama earlier this week as to whether or not Washington would play BYU, or even San Diego State this week, both of which have open dates, but under recently-released Pac-12 guidelines, “If a Pac-12 opponent becomes available by the end of day Thursday in any given week, the conference game must be played in lieu of any nonconference game.”

“I think you have to be really conscientious about spreading yourself too thin,” Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan said Tuesday morning in regards to preparing for ASU, but knowing the opponent may change on a dime. “You have to be smart in your preparation. Right now, all focus is on ASU. That game is still on, we’re set to play on Sunday as everybody’s seen, and I think you do yourself a disservice if you start looking at other opponents and things of that nature.”

Under first-year head coach Jimmy Lake, Washington (2-0) has morphed into the biggest threat to 15th-ranked Oregon in the Pac-12 North. The Huskies are coming off a 44-27 win over Arizona in which the defense pitched a shutout for three-plus quarters, while the offense churned out 233 rushing yards on 45 carries.

Husky Stadium has largely been a house of horrors for Utah, which is 2-8 at the on-campus facility. The Utes’ most-recent trip there last season, though, was one of the program’s biggest wins in recent memory.

Ranked No. 9 and needing a win to keep its Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff hopes alive, Jaylon Johnson’s 39-yard pick-six late in the third quarter swung the momentum. Short fourth-quarter touchdown runs from Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss put the Utes in control as they held on for a 33-28 win.

Lake has been on staff at Washington since 2014, most of that time spent as defensive coordinator. In that span, the Huskies are 4-2 against Utah, including a 10-3 win in the 2018 Pac-12 championship game.