Gordon Monson: An imperfect Utah football team has followed Kyle Whittingham’s lead in the face of adversity

The Utes are 5-1 despite dealing with significant injuries.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the first half against the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.

Kyle Whittingham is a really good coach, not a perfect one. His Utah football team is good, far from perfect.

But there is something Whittingham and his Utes have rather impressively mastered and conquered, something particularly notable considering significant flaws of the past, flaws that have been corrected, if not perfected. And we’ll get to them in just a minute.

First an update.

There are difficult days ahead for the Utes, just as there have been difficult days behind them. In three of the next four weeks, the Utes face USC, Oregon and Washington, all high-caliber teams. Two of those games are on the road — at the Coliseum and at Husky Stadium. The Utes are “lucky” enough to get the Ducks at Rice-Eccles.

That is what it is. And what else is is that Utah, apparently, hasn’t much of a clue as to when its quarterback Cam Rising will return. This question has been beaten to death, and fine arguments can be made as to how the Utes should or shouldn’t have handled his absence/possible return not just more appropriately but more effectively.

It has done Utah fans, and for that matter the Utes themselves, little good to act as though the injured starter might have returned in time to face Florida in the season opener. That was seven weeks ago. Nor did it advance anything positive for Whittingham to announce at a postgame presser a month ago that Rising had been cleared as a “full go” to practice.

As everyone knows, he’s still not back and the Ute offense has suffered in a major way, especially the passing game, which hasn’t been any kind of threat at all. And the inability to consistently throw has hampered Utah’s traditional strength — rolling up large gains on the ground. It takes no Einstein to realize that if there isn’t a threat through the air, defenses can load up to slow the run. And so it has gone.

That’s what Cal attempted to do on Saturday against the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and this time those Utes went ahead and rushed for 317 yards, anyway. Utah used classic old-time Whittingham football to down the Bears, 34-14, by throwing up rugged resistance (a mere 66 rushing yards yielded) and … yeah, pounding the rock on the ground.

“That was the difference in the game,” Whittingham said. “The most important factor.”

It was physical, and, despite the coach’s praise for his offense, not much for beauty. But, at this juncture, with the Utes sitting at 5-1, nobody cared. This game was Utah’s whole season in short form — playing without their star quarterback, without much of an air attack, even against a vulnerable pass defense, falling behind early — befriending misfortune and climbing over it, ascending to victory.

It was a win over an inferior opponent, but a win, nonetheless.

Resiliency was what it’s been since the first game — the word of the day, a theme for the season. A theme, it seems, for every Utah season.

Emblematic of that was the performance of Sione Vaki, a defensive back who went ahead and played some D, but who also ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Plug in and play.

“He provided a spark,” Whittingham said. “He really added to what we were doing on offense.”

Rising’s injury, as infamous as it’s been, hasn’t stood alone. At various points, over 20 players have suffered sprains, tears, dislocations, contusions, breaks, bruises, physical complications of one sort or another, and most of those have come not just to team members, but to team members who make a difference on the field.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) scores a touchdown during the second half against the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

The critic — and actually the realist — would say … every team faces injuries. It’s part of the game and should be expected and properly prepared for. But even Whittingham said this specific run of injuries has gone beyond anything he’s seen in his long career. So, there’s that.

And when stars like Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe are absent, as well as half the running back room — Mr. Vaki, hello, come on over — that has an effect that is obvious, but not as obvious as it should be. It’s one thing for a program to build depth, as the Utes mostly have done and as they should have done. It’s another to lose team leaders like the aforementioned. That can and often does tear the heart out of a team.

Not this one.

An argument can be made that Utah coaches should have seen this coming and should have patched up the backup holes more proficiently and profoundly. Kuithe’s knee and Rising’s knee, both were complex injuries that, regardless of what was said publicly, could have been seen for what they really are, thereby motivating coaches to find better/additional options as replacements, better underscoring the pitiably overused next-man-up mantra.

That’s all the bad news.

Here’s the good: What was once a weakness for Whittingham has grown into a remarkable strength — namely, facing down adversity.

Remember when the Utes used to get out to fantastic starts to their seasons, often climbing to a high national ranking and, next thing, come November, falling flat? It almost got to the stage where the doldrums of late fall were expected, not exceptions.

(James Roh | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Karene Reid (21) and Utah Utes cornerback Miles Battle (1) celebrate a play during the second half against the California Golden Bears at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 14, 2023.

One reason for the collapses was that Whittingham wore his teams out. He ground them down to the nub with his personal relentless, unbending, demanding manner. And that wasn’t a press just on the players, it was on darn near everyone — assistant coaches, trainers, equipment managers, secretaries, custodians, the whole shebang. If you refuse to believe that, just ask around. As the cold winds of November blew through Utah football, the will to fight on sailed away with it.

This has changed.

Whittingham realized what was happening and altered his approach. He stayed intensely focused on the task at hand, but, as one assistant put it, “He learned to preserve the positive spirit of the thing. He backed off.” And that lesson has been prominent in recent seasons.

The Utes worked through all kinds of adversity in their back-to-back Pac-12 championship runs, from the technical to the tragic, finding ways to discover purpose while enduring and, most notably, elevating their state of play. Anybody who was paying attention knows the huge hurdles the Utes overcame on and off the field.

Which is to say, Whittingham’s trouble became a triumph, boosting the entire endeavor by way of communicating a useful message to his players, his assistants, his offense, his defense, his special teams, all things Utes.

So, where does Utah football go from here?

“We have some tough games coming up,” Whittingham correctly reiterated.

An admission: It’s easier to fight through difficulty when you have one of the best quarterbacks and leaders in all of college football in your lineup. But now, the Utes are punching through without him.

Let’s say it this way. As lousy as the Ute offense has looked at times, if not Saturday, along with as strong as the defense is, which it was on Saturday, in spite of what the injury report looks like and how wicked the weeks ahead appear, remember Whittingham’s track record of late, the lessons he’s learned, the proof of the recent past.

Come what may, nobody can be sure how it will all turn out. But that’s the point. Counting Whittingham and his team out on account of this or that or whatever would be or at least could be a mistake. No reason to make it.