Carson, Calif. • Nothing seemed possible until a great many things seemed possible.
Nothing seemed possible for three quarters Saturday night against San Diego State, then everything seemed possible when Cam Rising traded in his baseball cap and headset for a helmet, replacing Charlie Brewer and nearly helping the University of Utah football overcome mistakes that are now officially plaguing this team.
A 33-31 loss in triple overtime to a Mountain West team that has run roughshod over the Pac-12 in recent seasons can still end up just a footnote to this season. There continue to be problems that need quick fixing, but Rising gave off a vibe that anything is still possible as conference play begins on Saturday against Washington State.
Brewer takes a seat, Rising steps forward
To be clear, Utah’s offensive line got mauled at various points of the first half, which didn’t make Brewer’s job any easier. It is hard to operate as a quarterback when no one is picking up a blitz, snaps are shaky, and general pass-blocking isn’t happening.
However, Brewer didn’t help himself either. He airmailed a throw, he checked down too quickly, he seemed to be holding the ball a little too long when he did have time, and at some of those junctures, his throws were not accurate.
As the first half wore on, it increasingly felt like Kyle Whittingham needed to go to Rising. It was surprising to see Brewer start the second half. When Brewer telegraphed a pass early in the third quarter, had it intercepted by Tayler Hawkins, and San Diego State took a 24-10 lead on the next play, that felt like the end. Brewer got the next series, which resulted in Utah’s seventh punt, and that was it.
The Utes sideline, which was a morgue during the BYU game and all of this game, seemed to suddenly come alive. There was juice, there was a pep in everyone’s step, the offensive line continued to struggle, but it played with some more ferocity for Rising.
Rising was impressive. He extended plays with his legs, he stepped up in the pocket, he made a couple of throws Brewer has not, and generally played with a swagger that Brewer has lacked. Rising nearly saved Utah from itself on Saturday night.
Whittingham, of course, did not name Rising as his starter late Saturday night, but that decision is coming no later than Monday morning. All signs are pointing to Rising after he went 19-for-32 for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
This is where we are. Brewer wasn’t great against BYU, but he regressed vs. San Diego State. He has played poorly in part because of an offensive line playing poorly, but Rising made it happen Saturday in a way Brewer has not. It is that simple right now.
“The great ones in any sport, any team sport, make their teammates around them better,” Whittingham said. “That’s something that is definitely in the equation.”
There are still a lot of problems
It is understood that much of the postgame reaction centered on Rising and how he almost dragged Utah to the finish line, but the fact of the matter is, this Utes team is not very good right now, and Whittingham did not disagree.
He has spent three postgame sessions lamenting everything that has gone wrong, and that list isn’t getting any smaller.
The struggles along the offensive line, where Bam Olaseni started at right tackle in place of Simi Moala, are well documented. Utah gave up 204 rushing yards, but the alarming part of that is that Aztecs quarterback Lucas Johnson accounted for 87 of those yards, including a 54-yard run on third-and-1 from his own 39, a week after BYU’s Jaren Hall went nuts on the ground. The Utes gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the second time in three games. Jadon Redding missed a 37-yard field goal in the second overtime. That came after a missed extra point in the fourth quarter, which necessitated Utah going for two to tie the game with 16 seconds left.
None of these things are unfixable, but these things are things Whittingham hasn’t been able to cross off his to-do list, and to that end, he was visibly frustrated during his postgame session.
“We are not sharp enough as a football team right now, we are not polished enough,” Whittingham said. “We practice the right way, prepare the right way, but it is not transferring to game day like it needs to.
“We have to fix our issues as coaches, and that starts with me, obviously. We have to find a way to get us playing at maximum efficiency and maximum potential. That is my job as the coach.”
Everything is still on the table
Despite whatever concerns there are, and there are many, the message moving beyond this loss should be the same as after the BYU loss. Everything is still attainable.
Utah can win the Pac-12 South, it can play in the Pac-12 championship game, it can get to a Rose Bowl. Those attainable goals feel further away than they did 24 hours ago, but the point remains. Nothing has really happened yet because the Utes haven’t played a Pac-12 game yet, and the good news is, well, the Pac-12 South feels pretty wide open.
USC ran all over Washington State on Saturday behind backup quarterback Jaxson Dart, a former Corner Canyon star, but let’s see what the quarterback situation is next week before hopping back on that bandwagon. UCLA lost to Fresno State, Colorado’s offense is a mess, and Arizona State lost at BYU, although the Cougars are clearly much better than everyone thought.
Everything still seems possible, but more importantly, everything still somehow seems plausible, which has everything to do with the Pac-12 South being a mish-mosh of questions and untrustworthy teams at the moment.
Britain Covey awakens
One underrated, underwritten subplot through the first two games was that Britain Covey wasn’t a huge part of the offense with only five catches.
Covey had eight on Saturday for 46 yards and a touchdown, but six of those eight catches came from Rising as Utah went a little more uptempo with him at the helm.
That doesn’t mean Brewer is to alone be blamed for Covey’s lack of production, but Rising knows the deal by now. A healthy Covey is an experienced, capable, sure-handed weapon that Rising needs to utilize. Quite frankly, Covey hasn’t been fully utilized in a long time, a combination of at least injuries and subpar quarterback play.
Covey also registered his third career punt return for a touchdown to open the scoring, and the play was electric. He caught a block, caught another block, tiptoed the left sideline and was gone as the Utah contingent of fans built to a good roar when Covey took off.
Get Covey the ball however you can. Pass game, run game, whatever, and if a team is clueless enough to punt to Covey, that’s on them.
Other thoughts at the moment
• To reiterate, Whittingham was adamant that he will have his QB named Monday morning, ahead of what should be a light afternoon practice. Turning this into a mini-competition this week and/or dragging this out until Thursday benefits no one. Film on Sunday, decision by Monday, move along. It’s better that way.
• No one expected him to, but credit Rising for not going in the tank after he lost to Brewer in camp. He continued to prepare the right way and honestly, he should know better than anyone after last season that the backup is always one snap away. This is his moment, and it’s been years in the making at this point.
• Micah Bernard carried the ball 17 times and caught his eighth pass of the season on as many targets, but his most noticeable contribution was picking up the blitz a handful of times. Tavion Thomas was MIA. Running back questions can now cease.
• Nick Ford is the rock of that offensive line, so if he is having trouble snapping the ball, you know that unit is in a bad place.
• Devin Lloyd has 38 tackles through three games and is on pace for 152 total tackles. He has been absolutely all over the place in all three games as the linebacker position is not something anyone should be worried about right now.
• It isn’t time to start worrying about Utah’s kicking situation, but when you’ve been as good for as long as Jadon Redding has been, misses are going to be amplified. The All-Pac-12 sophomore missed a 37-yard field goal in the second overtime, which might be considered negligible after San Diego State missed its own field goal behind that to leave the game tied, and missed his second extra point in three games. Redding entered the season 73-for-73 on extra points and 18-for-21 on field goals for his career. He is now 81-for-83 and 22-for-27, respectively.
• Dignity Health Sports Park, a 27,000-seat, soccer-specific venue, is a weird place to watch a football game. The fact the Chargers played there for two years while SoFi Stadium was being built had to have been awkward.