Alex Smith wasn't exactly thrown into the fire last Thursday.
His collegiate debut as a starting quarterback began with two handoffs to Brandon Warfield and a pass to Paris Warren.
Then, notes Utah coach Urban Meyer, a quarterback run was called to knock off any cobwebs that may have existed in the sophomore's mind. Smith got hit, but not until scampering 10 yards for a first down. By game's end, he had thrown for 136 yards and rushed for 71 as Utah defeated California 31-24 before a record crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium and a national television audience on ESPN.
"I feel pretty good. It was nice to come away with the win," Smith said. "It was just awesome to see us drive down the field and do that — very exciting. I think I played pretty well and the team played good."
Smith orchestrated Utah's game-winning drive that concluded with just 1:06 remaining.
"He graded out as a winner. He got co-offensive player of the week. He was calm. He was smooth," said Meyer, who was especially impressed that Smith took a shot on a third-and-10 situation and completed a pass. "I've been around some first-time starters, and I thought he was fantastic."
So, too, did injured quarterback Brett Elliott. A fractured wrist against Texas A&M put an end to his streak of starts at eight games. He spent the Cal contest watching the defense and offering Smith suggestions. Senior Lance Rice also provided support and advised him to just relax, play loose and have fun.
"He did a great job. It was just fun seeing him out there. He's kind of young and it was fun to see him get all excited and everything," Elliott said. "I knew he was probably nervous being a big game on ESPN and stuff, but he did a great job and got us a win. My hat goes off to him."
Before the game, Elliott approached Smith and told his friend he supported him.
"He's just a real cool guy. I knew he didn't want a big speech by me or anything," Elliott said. "We're close. I just wanted to go up to him and tell him I loved him and I'm proud of him no matter what happens. And he came through."
Smith acknowledged having a few butterflies in his stomach before the game but said the coaching staff's detailed preparation kept him calm and confident. Having his parents fly in from San Diego and relatives from the area in attendance also helped. Even so, Smith admits it's nice to have his first start behind him. Elliott can relate.
"The hardest part is probably the first play. You get out there and it's like, ooh, it's for real now. You kind of take a deep breath, realize it's for real and know you're going to get hit," Elliott said. "Then the first play happens and you get hit and it's just like a high school game. You're just playing with the boys. Your instincts and all the practice and preparation you put into it just takes over."
Rice has fond memories of his first collegiate start. It came late in his freshman year.
"I just went and tried to have fun. It was a great experience for me," Rice said. "We came out and played hard. I just tried to get the ball to the playmakers."
In Smith's case, that meant getting it to Warfield and Warren.
"I thought he did good for his first start," said Warren, who caught half of Smith's 18 completions. "I know he had some jitters but as the game progressed I'm pretty sure he forgot all about them. He stepped up big."
EXTRA POINTS: Meyer said injured linebacker Spencer Toone had an MRI on his injured shoulder and it revealed a little nerve damage but no break. He's listed as questionable for Utah's next game — Sept. 27 at Colorado State . . . The Utes are focusing on a couple of things during their 16-day break. Meyer acknowledged zone blocking, ball security, pass coverage, personnel shifts on the defensive line and improved pass coverage are priorities. Same goes for CSU preparations . . . Through three games, Utah is converting on fourth-down attempts at an impressive 75 percent clip (9-of-12) while holding opponents to 20 percent (1-of-5) success.
Starting debuts: Utah quarterbacking corps
Player Date Result Comp./Att./Yards TDs Ints
Alex Smith Sept. 6, 2003 Won 31-24 (Cal) 18 - 27 - 136 0 0
Brett Elliott Oct. 12, 2002 Lost 36-17 (at SDSU) 28 - 50 - 272 2 3
Lance Rice Nov. 4, 2000 Won 38-16 (UNLV) 13 - 21 - 157 3 0