Utah Utes mailbag: What can Utah do to enhance the Rice-Eccles Stadium experience?

Plus: Insight on recent slow starts, how hurt is Clark Phillips III, Pac-12 perception with an expanded CFP, and more

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

College football is rich in tradition and pageantry.

Some of that stuff across the country has been in place for decades, and some of it is rather new, but took immediate hold.

Well, what about how that pertains to the University of Utah? We’re going to start this week’s Utes mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “Why can’t Utah fans agree on anything regarding kickoff times, stadium music, traditions, chants, or even stadium sodas? LOL, JK, but really, what do you think the administration can do to enrich the in-stadium experience for most fans? I think it’s fine, but evolve or die, right?” - @UnholiestJedi

A: Having not grown up around college football, nor having attended a football-crazed Power Five school, I may be naive here, but I know exactly what can enrich the in-stadium experience at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The team being good, and the team winning.

That’s it. That’s all it should take for Joe Average Utah Fan to have a positive experience on six or seven fall Saturdays per year. For the last few seasons, Kyle Whittingham’s program has checked both of those boxes.

Since the start of the 2018 season, the Utes are 22-2 at Rice-Eccles. One of those losses was in 2018 to a Washington team that wound up in the Rose Bowl. The other came in the 2020 COVID opener to USC, in which Utah was decimated by positive tests and contact tracing in the two weeks preceding the game.

In this span, Utah won the Pac-12 South and advanced to the Pac-12 championship game three times, finally getting over the hump and getting to a Rose Bowl last season.

I promise you, the vast majority of Power Five programs would sign on immediately to be what Utah has been for the last four, now going on five seasons, so what’re we talking about here with the in-game experience? Shouldn’t winning be enough?

Evolve or die? I would argue this program has indeed evolved over the last half-decade.

Among the fan emails I get on a weekly basis, I usually get a couple on this topic, mostly complaining about the lack of tradition and pageantry associated with Utah football. OK, fair enough, I’ll definitely give you that.

There’s no Howard’s Rock like Clemson, or “The Wave” like at Iowa, in which fans at Kinnick Stadium turn and face Stead Family Children’s Hospital, and wave at sick children and their families. There’s no “Jump Around” like at Wisconsin, or Ohio State’s marching band, which is tremendous live, by the way.

If you want something that belongs to Utah, the Moment of Loudness, which was organic, born and fostered out of tragedy, and became a fan base rallying cry last fall, is special. It has quickly morphed into something that feels like it is going to endure, after Kyle Whittingham retires, after Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe’s teammates have moved on from Utah, for years to come, if not forever.

That’s the whole thing. It has to be an idea, it has to be organic, it has to belong to the fans. It’s not up to the administration to force something upon everyone.

If you want to help enrich the in-stadium experience at Rice-Eccles, my advice is to not get up from your seat between the third and fourth quarters and, if it’s a night game, have your cell phone flashlight ready.

Q: “Has Kyle Whittingham/Andy Ludwig offered anything insightful about the slow start(s) for the offense beyond the usual coach-speak?” @benwilkinson

A: Not really.

Ludwig isn’t exactly chatty with the media, nor is he transparent. Monday afternoon was no different when he spoke to us for the first time since late in fall camp. He cited execution, play calls, and the respective defenses Utah has faced the last two weeks as reasons for the slow first-quarter starts.

Bringing up his own play calling as a reason for seven points over the last two first quarters combined got my attention, but whatever.

Earlier Monday, Whittingham was asked a question about San Diego State using an uncommon 3-3-5 defense as a potential cause for that particular slow start. The 3-3-5 employs three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs, and generally includes a healthy dose of blitzing.

“The 3-3-5 we faced, you don’t see it much anymore,” Whittingham said. “It’s almost like the defense facing an option team, where it’s a radical departure from what you see week to week, and you have to have a special plan for it, practice for it, try to simulate it with your scout team, and that is part of the reason for last week. With all the movement, slanting, twisting they do, it takes a little bit of time to get acclimated to that.”

Fair enough. That didn’t feel like coach-speak from Whittingham, but more of an explanation, which is appreciated.

Bottom line: Slow starts against Southern Utah and San Diego State are one thing, slow starts against Arizona State, Oregon State and the rest of the Pac-12 would be quite another.

Q: “Any insight on the Clark Phillips III injury?” - @corringe_chase

A: Phillips III disappeared to the injury tent during the third quarter Saturday night against San Diego State with what appeared to be a lower-body injury. He emerged and spent the rest of the game on the sideline, which may indicate it’s not serious. If it was a season-ender, Whittingham would have said so.

Instead, Whittingham expressed no concern postgame, while saying he was optimistic his All-Pac-12 cornerback would play at Arizona State. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley on Tuesday afternoon danced around a question on Phillips III’s health, before not really answering. That was expected, no big deal.

Phillips III was present at Utah’s normal Monday walkthrough at Eccles Field House, but that means nothing. It’s important to note that he is a tough kid who has started in all 22 career games he has played in. If he can go, he’ll go. There’s little doubt.

If Phillips III cannot go, we’re looking at either Faybian Marks or Zemaiah Vaughn starting in his place opposite JT Broughton.

Q: “You’ve been covering the Utes for a little bit now. Outside of personal gains (i.e. going to the Rose Bowl, maybe an eventual March Madness run, etc.), how invested are you in Utah athletics emotionally? Zero? Getting there? You dislike BYU, so you’ve got one foot in the door.” - @GlassHalfUte

A: Let me be clear here. I don’t hate BYU. I think that the fan base and some of the media covering the Cougars can be a bit much, but I don’t hate BYU.

I have no emotional investment in Utah athletics. None. Zero. I didn’t grow up in Utah, I didn’t attend the University of Utah, I have never rooted for the Utes, I don’t have a family member with even a faint connection to the school.

If any of those things did apply to me, I would put all of it to the side, remain objective, and do the work. The New York Jets are really the only team I still root for. I have covered Jets games at MetLife Stadium. Not once did I put my fist through the press box glass in disgust at a Mark Sanchez interception. Why not? Because I’m a professional.

I root for two things in my line of work, a good story and no overtime.

Q: “Will the NCAA adopt an NFL-style clock to shorten games and keep tripleheader time slots from overrunning each other? Networks pay way too much to have four-hour games running on each other.” @robr0013

A: I have no idea whether or not the NCAA will ever adopt an NFL-style clock, but I think it absolutely should.

The big thing to me that sometimes makes college football games feel interminable is when the clock stops on a first down and doesn’t restart until the referee spots the ball and signals that play can resume. The NFL has no such stoppage, the clock continuing to move on a first down.

Fundamentally, I agree with our question-asker. Barring overtime, college football games should not be taking four hours, games on the same channel should not regularly be bleeding into each other, fans should not have to figure out what channel ESPNEWS is to watch the start of a game.

Utah-San Diego State was scheduled for an 8 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2. That got backed up to about 8:15, and the game did not start on ESPN2. Why? NC State-Texas Tech, which preceded Utah-San Diego State, still had about 12:00 to go.

That’s absurd.

Q: “How will the expanded Playoff change the perception of the Pac-12 in general (For example, Utah’s Week 1 loss wouldn’t be so doom and gloom in two years, the Playoff is still obviously in play), and how will that affect scheduling in the future?” - @utes_pac12

A: How a 12-team Playoff changes the perception of the Pac-12 is very TBD. Right now, as we all know, the national perception of the league is bad. No Pac-12 team has been to the CFP since 2016, and since then, there have only been a small handful of legitimate sniffs.

In a 12-team CFP, we know it will be the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large selections. If there is a year where just the Pac-12 champion gets in, well, that’s not great. I’d argue that the Pac-12 only getting one at-large team in a given year is also not great, but that’s me unfairly thinking in terms of today, when the Pac-12 struggles mightily to crack a four-team CFP.

Nationally, the Pac-12′s perception can’t get much worse. It can only get better.

As for scheduling, I’ve written many times on how Utah AD Mark Harlan has actively tried beefing up the football schedule, which is going to bode well once the Playoff expands. In some years, specifically 2026 with Houston, Arkansas, and BYU, Utah’s slate is loaded.

With potential realignment still a factor, and assuming Harlan sticks to his word and does not intend to start breaking game contracts, I think the next big Utah scheduling question is what happens with the third and final opening in 2025.

Harlan had stated publicly that the 2025 opening was earmarked as an Alliance game, against either the ACC or Big Ten, but with The Alliance dissipating in the wake of the Big Ten poaching UCLA and USC, the plan is now a little hazier. Might that still be an ACC opponent if it and the Pac-12 come to some sort of scheduling agreement?

Whatever happens, you can pencil that opening in as a home game, given the Utes are already scheduled to play at BYU and at Wyoming, which is one of the final scheduling remnants of the Chris Hill era.

Q: “What are your thoughts on someone who toasts a bagel and then puts butter on it? I may or may not be married to someone who does that and I don’t know how to handle it.” - @SaltLakeJake

A: With the exception of day-old or frozen bagels, there is absolutely no need to toast your bagel. Seriously, why do that?

If you’re walking into a bagel place, whatever you’re going with is fresh that morning, certainly within the last hour or two if you’re there during a weekday-morning rush or on a weekend. If you’re lucky enough to catch a fresh batch right out of the back, when they’re pillowy on the inside and a little crunchy on the outside, that is exponentially less of a reason to toast it. There’s just no reason to do that on the day of purchase. All you’re doing is turning it into cardboard.

You know who’s worse than bagel toasters? The people who order a bagel with the middle pulled out.

I decry the toasting of fresh bagels, but I will not condemn buttering your bagel. Butter is not nearly my first choice, but do your thing. Some people like cream cheese, maybe veggie cream cheese, maybe lox spread (hand up) if you’re flush with cash. Butter? OK, yeah. Peanut butter? Eh, but whatever.

Now, if you’re walking into a bagel place and ordering an untoasted bagel with butter — a typical bagel store helping of butter — that’s wild to me. At least ask for just a schmear of butter, not the normal amount, if you’re going that route.

Jake, the buttering is not the problem. It’s the toasting. I’m sorry for your troubles.

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