Gordon Monson: Utah football carries an aspiring champion’s burden

The Utes handled their business against Arizona State, but more dangerous games await.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws a pass against Arizona State during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Actualizing what was predicted this season for Utah football has become, at least in its totality, a weight for it to carry. That’s the burden potential conference champions are required to haul, but … only one brick, one block at a time. Some are heavier than others, but staying focused on what matters most — and we’ll get to that — lightens that load, even — no, especially — after a disappointing season-opening loss.

As Pac-12 play commenced with Utah’s fourth game on Saturday night in Tempe, what was meant as a routine outing for the Utes, the height of their hurdle ratcheted only a small notch higher because of the contest’s location away from familiar confines, they went ahead and handled their business against Arizona State.

The final numbers shining into the dark desert sky illuminated that slice of the routine: Utah 34, ASU 13.

Burp and a scratch. No big surprise there. The Sun Devils are mediocre, with the turmoil and turnover in their coaching regime not helping one iota.

The result was, in fact, somewhat reassuring on account of a two-stage rocket of truth: The Utes are a more talented, better-coached team than the Devils. Everyone knew that. What was known beforehand was proved during and after. It was a victory for Utah and for the truth. As exciting to some as upsets in college football are, there’s also something comforting in knowing even in a less-than-crucial pursuit that, in a world gone mad on so many fronts, the planet can spin on its predictable proper axis.

So spin — the planet, not the truth — it did.

Cam Rising created much of the rotation, throwing over and through Arizona State’s resistance, less-than-stout though it is. Completing 19 of 29 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns, Rising’s showcase was somewhat unexpected, the Utes’ reliance on their quarterback rather than their ground game. Over the past two weeks, the Sun Devils’ D had given up 502 rushing yards, including 305 in a loss against Eastern Michigan last week. Utah added 205 yards to that total on Saturday night.

A decent, but unhappy number by Kyle Whittingham’s way of thinking.

The Utes didn’t need to continually thump the Sun Devils with their rushing attack, but Whittingham knows they might have to rely on that aspect more against some foe(s) in the future. Something to improve upon.

Part of the challenge there had to do with Tavion Thomas not playing in the first half. Instead, he stood on the sideline, fully dressed, leaning from side to side, from foot to foot, waiting … waiting … waiting to get the call. It came midway through the third quarter, after the game had already been decided. That was a coach’s decision.

Thomas ended up with 11 carries for 60 yards, highlighted by a 28-yard scamper.

It made no difference, no way, no how. And it won’t, except if troubles and reasons surrounding that coach’s decision linger.

In the immediate, there were no such complications. Before the first quarter was done, so were the Devils.

Rising hit Dalton Kincaid in the end zone twice over that early span, Utah adding a field goal and another touchdown before the break.

Game was over.

Utah applied too much power and pressure and presence from its defense on ASU, taking apart any real offensive threat from the home team. The Sun Devils couldn’t run it, they couldn’t pass it, and they couldn’t figure out any other way to advance the ball. There was one other way — long kickoff returns, another crack the Utes will have to Spackle in the weeks ahead.

Otherwise, ASU offered up a whole lot of nothing.

The Utes, as mentioned, were not flawless here. And that’s good news and bad. They can tighten things up, which caused them some bits of distress on Saturday night, but it also suggested greater promise for the future, as they do.

Whittingham knows they can play better, soar higher. He also knows they will have to.

Still, they won on the road by 21.

All told, the Utes gained 465 yards, ASU 267. They had 11 more first downs, possessed the ball more than 10 minutes longer, got five sacks and eight tackles for loss, and yielded a mere six rushing yards. Six! Those sacks helped with that ridiculous number, but on any account, it would have been slim.

If this is the way it’s going to go and be in league play this season, all those good vibrations sent by prognosticators to the Utes in the run-up to 2022 could very well be transformed into reality. With USC and Oregon finding some footing, and with a random shooting star or two bound to burn through at one juncture or another, Utah can’t take too much satisfaction by way of any single victory in the here and now, whoever they play, certainly not Arizona State. Rather, it has to concentrate on the aforementioned, on every coach’s mantra in every sport in every season: Focus on rocksteady improvement.

That is all.

Favorable scores and unfavorable ones, too, only matter as a partial measure of that progress. The loss in Gainesville gave that instruction early.

It’s a cliche only because it’s true.

Getting better than they were last week, every week, and realizing everything that’s required to do so, is the Utes’ best formula for keeping the routine precisely that — unspectacularly run of the mill. Hum-drum, concentrate, work hard, rack up another number. And on the occasions when they might meet their equal, or an opponent turning out to be superior to them, that’s the best course for keeping the planet on its proper axis, and bumping it off, if they are ever in need as underdogs.

The worst occurrence of the night came at the end of the first quarter when star tight end, the other bracket to Kincaid’s Frick, Brant Kuithe’s Frack, needed assistance off the field with an injured wheel. Later, he was spotted on the bench, frustration on his face, knee packed in ice, crutches in hand.

Again, hardship an aspiring champion must bear.

The Utes carried theirs in the desert on Saturday night. Next up, a dangerous Oregon State team at Rice-Eccles, then UCLA on the road, and USC at home.

The coach’s mantra/cliche most definitely applies, as does that potential champion’s burden.