Utes football leaves nonconference season with plenty of lessons — and some concerns

The No. 14 Utes are 2-1 heading into Pac-12 play.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) with the keeper as the University of Utah host San Diego State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Sept. 17, 2022.

The nonconference season is over.

The University of Utah football team endured a disappointing performance against Florida and followed it up with blowing out two very different teams — first Southern Utah and, most recently, San Diego State in a 35-7 rout Saturday night.

The No. 7 Utes (2-1) will now start preparations for their Pac-12 schedule. And in doing so, they’ll be employing the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

“You can’t flinch,” quarterback Cam Rising said when asked what he learned about the team through its nonconference games. “There’s no time to flinch. We really just have to make sure if things aren’t going the right way, we have to just relax and start playing our brand of football.”

That lesson likely came about over the last two games for the Utes. Against both the Thunderbirds and the Aztecs, Utah got off to slow starts and ended the first quarter tied before things started opening up in the second quarter on both sides of the ball.

“We’ll look at the film and see if there’s any common denominators between last week and this week,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But once we got going and got momentum, then the floodgates kind of opened and we put the game away mid-third quarter.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (3) is charged with unsportsmanlike conduct as the University of Utah host San Diego State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Sept. 17, 2022.

Rising got off to a slow start on Saturday. He started 2 of 7 and was sacked twice before finishing the game 18 of 30 with a career-high four touchdowns and 224 yards. He said the Utes “relaxed” in the second quarter, which allowed them to play the way they are used to playing.

Utah’s defense showed up for a second straight game, allowing just 173 yards of total offense and only 60 passing yards. It was on the way to a shutout before San Diego State scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter when the game was all but over.

Sophomore linebacker Karene Reid said it was important for the defense to show up after what happened against the Gators.

“We really needed that,” Reid said. “I feel like the first two weeks, especially the front seven, we were really trying to find our identity as a defense. So to play a team that really loves to run the ball and takes pride in running the ball, and for us to stalemate them like that, it’s huge as far as momentum going into conference play.”

Utah gave up 113 rushing yards to San Diego State. Last week, the Aztecs ran the ball for 380 yards against Idaho State.

When asked what he learned bout his team through the first three games of the season, Whittingham pointed the front seven after an “abysmal” game against Florida.

“We certainly got seasoned, I guess you could say, in the front seven,” Whittingham said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Chris Curry (24) is helped off of the field as the University of Utah hosts San Diego State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Sept. 17, 2022.

Injury concerns

Two players left Saturday’s game with injuries and did not return.

Cornerback Clark Phillips III walked off the field on his own early in the third quarter and entered the team’s medical tent. Soon after, he was seen on the field with his helmet on. But the Utes had such a big lead at that point that it may not have made sense to risk further injury.

Whittingham didn’t say much about the injury to Phillips, but did intimate that he could be out for at least a short spell.

“All I can say is we don’t feel it’s serious,” Whittingham said. “But you never know how long it’ll take before we get him back. We hope this next week.”

The real bad news was about running back Chris Curry. Whittingham said it looks like Curry is gone for the season after suffering an injury on a run play that left him getting carried off the field.

“That’s breaking my heart,” Whittingham said. “Great kid, great teammate. All he does is work hard, doesn’t complain. He’s a great leader for us. So we’ll miss his leadership. Fortunately, he does have another year. So we’ll get him back next year.”

Whittingham added that he hopes linebacker Mohamoud Diabate returns this coming week.

“We’ll see,” Whittingham said. “But I think odds are that we’ll see him ready for this next game.”