There is nothing but excitement, pride and anticipation up on The Hill today.
The University of Utah opens its new $50-million, 45,634-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight with the first home football game of 1998 at 7 with 1-0 Utah hosting 0-1 Louisville and its new coach, John L. Smith, formerly of Utah State. Smith's beaten Utah three times in four tries.Wow. A whoop-de-doo and a rivalry, too.
But there can be danger lurking beneath the pomp and regalia of a stadium party.i
Smith saw it happen last week. Louisville is the other NCAA Division I-A team to open a brand-new football stadium in 1998 - 42,000-seat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, just a short gallop from legendary Churchill Downs.
The Cardinals laid an egg last Saturday night on their new field, losing 68-34 to rival Kentucky, which had 801 yards of total offense, a record for both schools.
"It was worse than a homecoming as far as all the events and all the hoopla and all the parties and everything going on," Smith says. He spoke daily to his team about staying focused. "I don't know that that really hurt us, but it's something that's in college football, and it's a neat thing, and it's something that we're going to have to learn to deal with," he says, not unhappy this week to be on the road.
"Definitely," says Smith, "I'm hoping that Utah gets caught up in a lot of hoopla."
Utah coach Ron McBride and his players practiced in the stadium Thursday but not Friday, and other than their final tuneup, they say the stadium was out of their minds all week. Most of the get-togethers for the team and donors were held a couple of weeks ago, leaving the team to its own football thoughts this week.
Ute quarterback Darnell Arceneaux's thoughts are on showing Smith that Utah is worthy of his respect. "It's just another game, but it's also about respect. A lot of people say these are big-time rival coaches, and coach John L. Smith does not respect Mac. That kind of hurts, Mac being like a father to us. We're going to try to come out and show him that he needs to show respect."
But Smith has never said publicly he doesn't respect Utah or McBride.
"Oh, everybody's gossiping," Arceneaux admits with a big smile. Propaganda never hurts a football team.
"He's got our number," Ar-ceneaux adds. "He knows what to do against us. That kind of hurts for him to go to another program and to think they can just walk in here and know how to beat us. But whoever plays the hardest wins the game," says the Ute sophomore, who's started, and won, three games now, including two at the end of last season.
Arceneaux expects "oh, just a big improvement" from himself after "just seeing things, how the game moves, how the game speed was. A game under the belt of everybody is making everybody relax." Arceneaux noted that Utah played well, not great, at USU last Saturday. "We wanted to put a lot of points on the board (the Utes won 20-12), so I think we're anxious and want to get after them."
The new facility, says Ar-ceneaux, can do nothing but help. "When you get a full house of people just cheering and going crazy, it makes you want to perform. It gives you so much energy and life. Who wants to have a new stadium and play bad? Guys were real focused all week.
"It's a gift to all of us, to all the players that played before, what they worked for and what they achieved," says Arceneaux. "It's for the fans and the other players in the past, so we're not getting out of our game plan and getting all riled up over this."
Running back Omar Bacon should be near full strength after a preseason high-ankle injury, but Mike Anderson, who carried 32 times for 150 yards last week, is expected to start at tailback again. Receiver Boo Ben-dinger, who had offseason surgery, will likely start tonight over Donny Utu. And, if Utah opens in its base 4-3 defense, redshirt freshman Andre Dyson, a target for USU last week, is to start again over senior Dave Richards at cornerback.