Alex Smith's time has come.
The sophomore quarterback will make his first collegiate start tonight when the Utes face California (5:45 p.m., ESPN) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah coach Urban Meyer made the announcement Wednesday, while noting that senior Lance Rice will likely see action as well.
Smith replaces Brett Elliott, who suffered a fractured left wrist near the end of last Saturday's 28-26 loss at Texas A&M. Elliott had started eight consecutive games dating back to last season.
"We're probably a little bit better prepared than most because the other two have got a lot of reps in training camp," Meyer said earlier this week.
All three quarterbacks were listed as No. 1s until Aug. 28 when Elliott started against Utah State. Smith, who is a battling a bulging disk in his back and a bruised vertebrae, entered the game as a reserve and Rice did not play. Neither of the backups took a snap last weekend.
Even so, the reserves know they're constantly on alert. Meyer regularly points out that quarterbacks get hit in his system.
Rice understands that.
"I've just got to be able to perform when called upon," he said.
Though "stunned" by Elliott's injury, Smith is excited about the opportunity it creates. He's confident he can get things done.
"I'm just looking to step up," Smith said. "We're trying to get a win this Thursday and I'll do what I can do."
In executing the offense, he vows to take what's given, not pressure himself, and simply manage things. The former San Diego prep star, whose uncle is former USU coach John L. Smith, has limited college experience. He's completed 7-of-11 passes for 90 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in three games.
"You can't put a price tag on experience and against a Pac-10 defense you need a guy who won't be rattled," Meyer said. "Alex is very talented, but he gets rattled once in a while. So, we've got to calm him down and put a game plan together that favors him."
Smith expects Cal to apply a lot of pressure and bring a lot of people.
"I know how I'd play us. I'd stop Brandon Warfield," Meyer said. "However, that's one of the unique things about the offense. How do you stop Brandon?"
Warfield, who was won four straight Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Week awards dating back to last season, has rushed for 354 yards and four touchdowns this season. He's averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry.
"The key to stopping them is the usual for our defense — stop the run," Bears linebacker Brian Tremblay told the San Francisco Chronicle. "With their first-string quarterback out, I think they're going to run the ball a lot. It's not overly complex."
Among those seeking to stop Warfield is defensive back Donnie McCleskey. The hard-hitting Cal sophomore has regularly wound up in opposing backfields, as evidenced by 4.5 sacks in three games this season.
EXTRA POINTS: Cal leads the all-time series 4-1, including a 35-22 win in the only previous meeting in Salt Lake City 36 years ago . . . Former Utah All-America quarterback Lee Grosscup (1957) is in his 14th season a radio analyst for Cal football . . . This is the first time Utah has hosted an ESPN Thursday night telecast. The Utes have played two on the road — losing to Fresno State 27-13 in 1997 and to Colorado State 31-24 in 1999 . . . Freshman receiver Steve Savoy is questionable with a rib injury . . . Senior strong safety Dave Revill leads the Utes with 15 tackles . . . Utah hasn't given up a single quarterback sack this season . . . Meyer credits nose guard Steve Fifita for an exceptional game at Texas A&M . . . Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado was a Utah assistant in 1993 . . . ESPN's broadcast team includes Mike Tirico (play-by-play), Alex Flanagan (sidelines), as well as analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit . . . Tickets are still available. Call 581-UTIX.
Today, 5:45 p.m.