Utah opens final Pac-12 season with revenge on the mind

The No. 11 Utes are keen to start their league slate right, which just happens to entail some revenge against a Bruins team that beat them last season.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) as the University of Utah hosts the UCLA Bruins in Pac-12 football, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

After three solid-if-unspectacular wins to begin the season, against a pair of Power Five opponents and an overmatched FCS team, respectively, surely Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham is eager to get Pac-12 Conference play rolling, with No. 22-ranked UCLA visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

“No, every week is the same to me,” he replied at his weekly news conference.

Um, OK … let’s try again.

Surely the Utah football players are eager to get Pac-12 Conference play rolling, with UCLA visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

“Oh, for sure, for sure — especially UCLA,” said safety Sione Vaki.

“Yeah, it gets me all excited,” added defensive end Jonah Elliss. “I mean, I love playing the other games too, but once it comes to Pac-12, man, I just feel some sort of way.”

That’s the spirit.

Eventually Whittingham even conceded that this was shaping up to be an intriguing league slate, noting the irony that in what is either the final year of the Pac-12, or at least the last year of this iteration of the league, “I don’t think there’s any question it’s the best football year that we’ve ever had as far as a conference in its entirety.”

That depth of talent notwithstanding, with two straight Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl appearances to their credit, the No. 11-ranked Utes would love to close out this version of the league with a third consecutive title, though you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to concede publicly that their minds are on anything other than the Bruins.

It’s just as well, considering UCLA dealt Utah a 42-32 setback in Los Angeles a season ago.

Not that the Utes have forgotten.

“Yeah, I mean, they definitely out-physicaled us last year, and that was definitely embarrassing,” said Elliss. “That’s our mentality going into this: We’ve just got to be physical, man. They showed us up last year, and we’ve just got to do that to them this year.”

Aside from the physicality, what else will be different this time, though?

Well, while the Utes amassed an impressive 479 total yards, their defense was uncharacteristically exploited, yielding 502 total yards, including 203 on the ground.

Though Utah’s defense has been nothing short of spectacular vs. Florida, Baylor, and Weber State, the team figures that UCLA head coach Chip Kelly will have plenty of new schemes up his sleeve yet again.

“Well, Chip, he always has something planned for each team he goes against. He’s a brilliant mind, he has his ideas of what he wants to do against different defenses, so there’ll be something new in that,” said defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss. “But overall, they kind of do what they do, and they like to run that ball and make it easy for that young quarterback. So you already know we’re getting ready to stop run and get after ‘em.”

Speaking of “that young quarterback” …

Following five years of Dorian Thompson-Robinson at the helm, Kelly initially named holdover Ethan Garbers the starter, while declaring that Kent State transfer Collin Schlee and five-star freshman Dante Moore would also play. After five underwhelming series from Garbers against Coastal Carolina, though, Kelly has turned the reins over to Moore, who has been electric.

Moore has completed 62.7% of his passes while throwing for 615 yards, seven touchdowns, and one just interception.

Whittingham has noticed.

“Gonna be outstanding. He already is really good, but he’s gonna be really, really good as time goes on,” he said. “Same approach they took with Dorian Thompson-Robinson — started him early and just groomed him and just gave him all the reps and let him be the guy. A little bit different player than Dorian, not quite as much of a runner. But he’s a really good player, like I said, and he already is productive, and he’s going to be outstanding before it’s all over with.”

As for Utah’s own QB situation, Whittingham acknowledged on Tuesday that Cam Rising practiced and did “a great job,” but added that the team wouldn’t be making a decision between Rising and Nate Johnson for another 48 hours, and wouldn’t be disclosing publicly what that decision is until game time anyway.

Kelly was then asked how his game prep differs based on Utah’s QB possibilities.

“Nate’s maybe one of the fastest quarterbacks in the country. ... They’ve got a little bit more of a run package with him than they would with Cam,” he said. “… It’s similar because Cam was lethal with his legs, also. I think Cam was a real, true dual-threat also. It’s not like Cam is Tom Brady and Nate is Lamar Jackson. I think they both run a similar offense. It’s really preparing for [coordinator] Andy Ludwig and what he does.”

Of course, quarterback is hardly the only position where the Utes are unsettled, with Whittingham saying after the win over Weber State that the team was missing perhaps 15 or 16 contributors, then adding this week that they might get three, four, maybe five of those players back by Saturday.

His counterpart, naturally, does not intuit such news to be advantageous for his team.

Nor does he view last season’s result as any kind of harbinger.

“We’re preparing for Utah. They’re all really good players — if one guy’s down, it’s not like there’s a huge drop-off,” said Kelly. “… I don’t think ‘overconfident’ comes into any conversation when you’re playing Utah. I don’t think that word exists when you’re playing this team. This is the defending conference champ — two-time defending conference champ, really talented football team. Just turn the tape on. … They’re as good a football team as there is in the country.”

Whittingham, for his part, just wants his players focused on the right areas.

It’s not that the Utes didn’t show up last season, but rather, “we didn’t do enough good things to win the game.” This time around, he figures it’s likely UCLA will debut some looks they held back vs. Coastal Carolina, San Diego State, and North Carolina Central. He figures the Bruins also will feature plenty of athleticism and technique.

But, if the Utes can maintain their composure, stick to the game plan, and execute, rather than get distracted by the ramifications of what’s sure to be an internecine conference war, they have an excellent chance of improving to 4-0.

From that perspective, perhaps not getting geeked up about Pac-12 play is the sage move, after all.

“Every game counts the same, every game is darn important. I think that’s been one of our strengths through the years, to not get on the rollercoaster,” said Whittingham. “Just be at a high level every week and prepare the same way and not try to play outside the framework of our schematics and our structures, and just be able to handle adversity — which we’ve done an excellent job of that this year.”