The University of Utah football program took a collective victory lap last week in the wake of winning its first Pac-12 championship on Dec. 6.
That victory lap ended Saturday as the Utes returned to practice in preparation for the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day (2 p.m., ESPN). At this point, that 38-10 win over Oregon is in the rearview mirror, and full-blown preparations for among the biggest, highest-profile games in program history are underway.
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham noted Monday that his team will practice every other day this week, which coincides with final exams on campus, and ramp things up from there.
“So far, we have the right mindset,” Whittingham said Monday afternoon following a practice at the Eccles Field House that featured just shoulder pads. “Preparations are good so far. We play in 19 days, so it’ll be here before you know it.”
Whittingham circled back to a popular comparison he has gone to over the years, likening bowl prep to spring practice.
That comparison comes from the fact Utah is allowed 15 spring practices, the same rough estimate the Utes will get leading up to Jan. 1. Furthermore, bowl prep will offer more time with what Whittingham termed “developmental players,” which essentially means players who don’t play a lot or are taking a redshirt.
As far as questions and issues concerning depth-chart players go, one big topic of conversation over the last week has been how the Utes, who are young and thin in the secondary, intend to deal with Ohio State’s All-American trio of wide receivers, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Wilson and Smith-Njigba are both over 1,000 receiving yards for the season, while Olave is only 64 yards away. Meanwhile, Utah’s cornerbacks situation outside of Clark Phillips III has been a revolving door due to injury. All-Pac-12 cornerback JT Broughton was lost for the season in September, while Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn have both been lost due to injury inside the last five weeks.
Whittingham indicated he does not expect any of the injured cornerbacks to be available vs. the Buckeyes, but did note he and his staff are considering a position change or two to help with depth at the position ahead of the game.
For what it’s worth, despite the injuries and youth, Utah is giving up just 195.3 passing yards per game, good for third in the Pac-12 and 24th nationally. Behind redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud and his 3,800 yards and 38 touchdowns, Ohio State is averaging 364.9 passing yards per game, which is tops in the Big Ten and fifth nationally.
“He’s a great leader, he’s cool under pressure, he moves well in the pocket, he’s just a real talent,” Whittingham said of Stroud. “He’s got it all.”
More NFL draft decisions coming, Whittingham OK with timing of Pledger, Covey
Within days of each late last week, fourth-year junior running back T.J. Pledger and redshirt junior wide receiver/return specialist Britain Covey announced they would enter the NFL draft in April.
The timing of those announcements, less than a full week after the Pac-12 championship game and just as preparations for the Rose Bowl were set to begin, were fine with Whittingham. The 17th-year head coach then admitted what was already obvious, that other similar decisions are coming from players in the upcoming days and weeks.
“I think any time now is fine, and they decided to do theirs early,” Whittingham said. “There are some guys that are in the process of deliberating. If they decide to come out, it could be in the next week or two, or even after the bowl game. There really is no set timing for that, just when the player has made his decisive decision and is ready to be definitive about it, then they go ahead and announce it.”
Later Monday, another fourth-year junior, tight end Cole Fotheringham, announced on Instagram that he would be entering the NFL draft.
Aside from Pledger, Covey, and Fotheringham, All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd will forgo his final year of eligibility in favor of the NFL, while All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Nick Ford is expected to follow suit.
Tight end Brant Kuithe, who flirted with the NFL a year ago, said Monday he will announce his decision “soon,” while running back Tavion Thomas, who has 1,041 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, said he will wait until after the Rose Bowl to make his decision.
Utah’s Rose Bowl ticket allotment rises as sales remain steady
The Utah athletic department on Monday afternoon announced that it has sold 29,000 Rose Bowl tickets through its ticket office, while the school’s ticket allotment, originally set at 27,800, is currently 33,000.
That figure of 29,000 comes as Crimson Club Levels 1-3 became eligible to purchase tickets over the first three days of this week, beginning with Level 3 on Monday. Level 2 is up on Tuesday, and Level 1 on Wednesday. If tickets remain beyond Wednesday, sales will open to the general public on Friday at 10 a.m.
Between Utah going through the Crimson Club levels, Utes fans gobbling up tickets from Ohio State’s allotment, which has been open to the general public since Dec. 6, and resale sites, there has been much conjecture as to how many Utah fans will be at the Rose Bowl.
Speaking on 1280 AM earlier Monday, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan offered an educated guess of 60,000 Utah fans at the Rose Bowl. That, Harlan indicated, was based on the most-recent ticket sales figures he had at his disposal.