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Utah football opts out of bowl game; Saturday’s home date vs. Washington State will be season finale

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

If the University of Utah football team defeats Washington State on Saturday morning, the Utes will be 3-2 and bowl-eligible.

But the athletic department announced Friday that the Utes are opting out of any potential bowl invitation.

The football players got together and collectively decided that beyond Saturday’s regular-season finale against the Cougars (11:30 a.m., Fox Sports 1), they do not have the appetite for more football. Frankly, who could blame them?

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted earlier this week that any decision on a bowl game would be left up to the players, and he would back whichever path they chose.

“Our No. 1 priority is the well-being of our players, and we support the decision they have made,” Whittingham said in a statement. “They have worked extremely hard since they returned to campus this summer, and they have shown tremendous resiliency in dealing with adversity and challenges. We’re proud of what they have accomplished on the field and the way they have handled everything off the field. We look forward to beginning our preparations for the 2021 season when the players return to campus in January.”

Football team members began streaming back to campus for voluntary workouts in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-June. In the six months since, there have been strict medical protocols inside athletics facilities and, starting in early-October, daily-antigen testing and weekly PCR testing.

The season was canceled on Aug. 11, only to be reinstated on Sept. 24 after the Pac-12 struck a deal for the daily-antigen testing three weeks earlier. The Utes’ Nov. 7 opener vs. Arizona was canceled the day before due to positive COVID-19 tests and the ensuing contact-tracing protocols. A Nov. 14 trip to UCLA suffered the same fate, so Utah finally opened on Nov. 21 and has played four games since.

The type of emotional toll all of this has taken on the players, not to mention Whittingham, his coaching staff, athletic director Mark Harlan and his staff, is untold. However, after a 38-21 win at then-No. 21 Colorado last weekend, junior wide receiver Britain Covey said he and his teammates were burned out. At that point, it seemed clear that opting to play in a second-tier postseason game like the Independence or Armed Forces Bowl was unlikely.

“We support our student-athletes in their decision and applaud them for the way they represent the University of Utah,” Harlan said. “We have said from the beginning of this pandemic that everything is about the health and well-being of our student-athletes. They have done everything asked of them in following the strict protocols that were established to provide them the opportunity to play a football season this fall. We thank our incredible supporters and fans who have stood alongside us and our student-athletes throughout this unprecedented season.”

Utah joins UCLA (3-3), Stanford (3-2), Washington (3-1), Washington State (1-2), and Arizona State (1-2) as Pac-12 teams opting out of bowl games despite being eligible or able to clinch eligibility with a win on Saturday.

A big program decision was made Friday, but there is still a game to play Saturday, which bears watching given the young, improving Utah defense will have to deal with an unorthodox Washington State offense.

When Mike Leach was the head coach in Pullman, the Cougars were difficult to prepare for and replicate in practice due to Leach’s high-octane Air Raid offense. Leach is gone to Mississippi State, but his replacement, Nick Rolovich, brings another difficult-to-prepare for offensive scheme in the run and shoot.

While the head coach at Hawaii in 2018, Rolovich adopted the run and shoot, which he ran as a Rainbow Warriors quarterback in the early 2000s under highly successful head coach June Jones. With the new offensive philosophy, Hawaii went 8-6 in 2018, then 10-5 while advancing to the Mountain West championship game in 2019.

Dynamic freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura, who committed to Washington State when Leach was still the coach, then stuck to his commitment when Rolovich came aboard in January, has completed 60.4% of his passes for 682 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in three games.

“A lot more mesh routes, crossing routes with Coach Leach and the system he employs than what they’re doing at Washington State right now,” Whittingham said earlier this week when asked about the differences between Leach’s Air Raid and Rolovich’s run and shoot. “The end result isn’t a lot different, they’re both piling up passing yards and that’s the primary thing they’re trying to accomplish, is throw the ball. There’s a lot of difference in how they run the routes and the conversions off of those routes.”

UTAH VS. WASHINGTON STATE

At Rice-Eccles Stadium

Kickoff » Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MT

TV » ESPN (Eric Collins, play-by-play; Ben Leber, color)

Radio » ESPN700 AM, Sirius Ch. 121, XM Ch. 197

Records » Utah 2-2; Washington State 1-2

Series » Washington State leads, 9-8

About Utah » Utah is seeking its 100th all-time win at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which opened in 1998. … Opponents are converting just 35% of their third downs against the Utes, which ranks second in the Pac-12 and 23rd nationally among FBS teams. … Utah has never won back-to-back games against Washington State. The Utes won last season’s meeting, 38-13, in Pullman. … Utah has held three of its four opponents to under 360 yards of total offense, ranking second in the Pac-12 in total defense (357.2). … Running back Ty Jordan and place kicker Jadon Redding have won each of the last two Pac-12 Offensive Freshman and Special Teams Player of the Week awards, respectively.

About Washington State » Washington State has had three games canceled due to COVID-19, including last week’s home game vs. Cal. … Freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura has burst onto the scene this fall by completing 60.4% of his passes, while throwing for 682 yards in three games. De Laura also has four touchdown passes against three interceptions. … Washington State last won in Salt Lake City during the 2017 season, a 33-25 decision. … Since 2015, the Cougars have 30 Pac-12 wins, fourth-most in the conference.

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