As the University of Utah prepares to host San Diego State on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Kyle Whittingham was asked what he remembers most about last season’s game against the Aztecs.
“Besides a miserable experience?” Whittingham deadpanned. “It was very miserable ... but obviously what stands out is when Cam (Rising) entered the game in the third quarter and provided that spark immediately.”
Whittingham dived into the topic of that infamous trip to Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. How Utah looked out of sync for three quarters of a 33-31 triple-overtime loss. How the defense played well, but the team did not play well enough to win.
Most significantly, how the tenor and trajectory of last season changed that night after Rising entered the game for an ineffective Charlie Brewer. Whittingham knows better than anyone that Rising’s midseason emergence as QB1 was arguably the biggest reason why the season 2021 ended with the Utes’ first Pac-12 championship and trip to the Rose Bowl.
Rising, last season’s All-Pac-12 first-team quarterback, was expectedly less chatty when the topic was broached on Monday afternoon after practice.
“What stands out in your mind about that game?”
“That we lost,” Rising immediately answered.
Fair enough, but if one takes a close look at the totality of last season, it is impossible to not pinpoint the San Diego State game as the clear turning point to a season that was trending in the wrong direction.
The buildup to San Diego State
A little over three weeks before Utah traveled to Los Angeles to face San Diego State, Rising lost a fall camp quarterback competition to highly-touted Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer.
Rising was healthy going into camp, but had missed all of spring practice while he recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Meanwhile, Brewer drew effusive praise from Whittingham during spring practice, capped by a 15-for-15, 151-yard showing in the spring game. At one point during camp, Whittingham stated that Brewer’s command of the offense is almost on par with that of Rising, despite Rising being at Utah two-plus years longer.
“They’ve made it tough the entire time, and it’s going to be a close call,” Whittingham said on Aug. 23, minutes after the team’s final live camp scrimmage and 12 days before the opener. “We feel like we’ve got enough of a body of work now to make the call. They’re both really good players, and we have a really good situation, picking from two guys that are both quality quarterbacks.
“It has been legitimately, completely a neck-and-neck competition and both of those guys have done a great job.”
Brewer had an encouraging Utah debut against Weber State on Sept. 2, going 19-for-27 for 233 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception in a 40-17 win.
But any honeymoon period Brewer may have been enjoying was Whittingham’s starter was short-lived.
The following week at BYU, Brewer went 15-for-26 for 147 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 26-17 loss in Provo. He sailed passes and his decision-making that night left something to be desired, but in fairness, all of the blame didn’t belong to him.
Utah’s offensive line, which was dealing with injuries and shuffling going back to camp, was badly outplayed. There were times Brewer didn’t have three seconds to make a decision, but even in instances where his line held up, there were too often times where he held the ball for too long and looked overwhelmed in the pocket.
For whatever agitation came from Utah fans, many of which screamed into the voids of social media and the message boards that Utah should start Rising at San Diego State the following week, Whittingham wasn’t there yet.
In a game played in front of just 11,000 fans, more than 100 miles from San Diego State’s campus while the school’s new 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium was still under construction, Brewer started against the Aztecs.
It was his last game in a Utah uniform.
Rising’s coming-out party
The problems that plagued Brewer and Utah’s offensive line in Provo followed them to Carson. Seven of the 10 drives he presided over ended in punts, plus a crushing interception by Aztecs All-Mountain West cornerback Tayler Hawkins on a pass Brewer telegraphed. Hawkins returned that pick to the Utah 7-yard line, Greg Bell scored on the first play of the ensuing possession, and San Diego State led, 24-10, with 10:42 left in the third quarter.
The Utes and Aztecs then traded punts. With Utah getting the ball back with 5:24 remaining in the third, Rising could be seen on the sideline with about 45 seconds left in a media timeout. He threw three balls, then trotted out to the huddle in place of Brewer.
“Leading up to that, his attitude was terrific,” Whittingham recalled this week. “He prepared as if he was the starter from the outset, even though he knew he wasn’t when we made the announcement. He continued to work hard, watch film and told me, ‘Hey, when my number is called, I’ll be ready, I promise you that.’ His number was called, he responded, and he absolutely was ready.”
Rising’s first three drives ended in two punts and a turnover on downs after a fourth-and-goal pass from the 12 went for eight yards to Britain Covey.
With 6:33 left to play and Utah going up-tempo still down by two scores, Rising got moving. In the fourth quarter alone, he went 16-for-26 for 117 yards and two touchdown passes. The game-tying drive saw Rising go 3-for-3 on third down, including the score, a four-yard pass to Theo Howard with 16 seconds left. He then Solomon Enis for the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so in the grand scheme of things, the fact Utah lost that game hardly wound up mattering. The fact Rising essentially announced his arrival is what truly mattered.
Two days later, Brewer approached Whittingham and told him he intended to transfer. Whittingham asked Brewer to sleep on it. The next morning, Brewer hadn’t changed his mind and left the program. Just like that, the job belonged to Rising, but in fairness, it would have been hard to envision Whittingham going back to Brewer, given how his 10-plus quarters as the starter had gone, plus how well Rising played after he entered.
“It just seemed like we were way out of sync in that football game,” Whittingham said. “We played good defense for the most part and then went to triple overtime. It was not a good experience and we did not play well, but after the outcome and moving forward, it turned out to be a change in our season because of making the quarterback change.
“Going with Cam the rest of the way and it ended up being a pretty good year.”
A season for the ages
Whittingham’s assertion that last season “ended up being a pretty good year” may have been tongue-in-cheek, because it qualifies as a wild understatement.
Before last season even began, with no guarantee that he would be the opening-day starter, Rising’s teammates voted him as one of five team captains in late August anyway. Rising already had command of the locker room, his captaincy merely hammered that fact home.
He is widely viewed by teammates and coaches as having a gregarious personality that people gravitate towards, not to mention possessing the leadership qualities necessary to be effective at his position.
So, with the season teetering after San Diego State, Rising offered a calming presence over everything, like everything was going to be OK after a rough start.
Utah went 9-2 with Rising as the starter. He threw for nearly 2,500 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions, including none over a five-week stretch from late October to late November. He ran for another 499 yards and six touchdowns, he even punted twice against UCLA to great fanfare.
Rising helped engineer two demolitions of Oregon across 13 days, one to clinch the Pac-12 South, the other to win the Pac-12 championship game.
He was by no means the sole reason Utah got over the hump last fall, but every careful observer will agree the Utes don’t accomplish what they did without Rising.
“He’s a whole different animal and he does a tremendous job,” San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke told reporters earlier this week. “You watch him in the Rose Bowl and then against Florida. He can run and get out of problems, extend plays, he’s a really good football player.”
Whittingham agrees. So do his teammates, so does this fanbase.
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