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Utes enter 2nd part of 3-phase season

After completing a grueling stretch of three games in 11 days, the University of Utah football team took a little time off.

Now it's back to work. The Utes (3-1) visit North Carolina (1-2) on Saturday — opening what head coach Kyle Whittingham refers to as the second section of a three-phase schedule.

Last Thursday's 38-35 win over Air Force capped an opening sequence that included victories over Arizona and Utah State, as well as an overtime setback at TCU.

"We survived it pretty well, knock on wood," Whittingham said. "We came out of the Air Force game healthy."

Following film evaluation, lifting and meetings on Friday, the Utes were given the rest of the weekend off.

A nine-day gap between games made it possible. It's the first of two scheduling breaks that has broken the Utes' season into three distinct segments. The North Carolina game ushers in a second set that includes road games at Colorado State (Oct. 8) and UNLV (Oct. 22) plus a home date with San Diego State (Oct. 15).

A bye week follows the trip to Vegas — providing another separation.

Utah closes out the season with November home games against Wyoming and New Mexico before the finale at BYU.

The schedule, Whittingham said, has a lot of positives to it.

So, too, has his team's play.

"I think we are doing some good things," Whittingham said. "We've made a lot of progress through the first four games. I think our team is beginning to develop."

Starting quarterback Brian Johnson, an 18-year-old sophomore, headlines the progress. He scored three touchdowns rushing and passed for two more in the victory over Air Force.

The encore will be a challenge. North Carolina is coming off a 31-24 win at rival North Carolina State. And there's the revenge factor. The Utes racked up 669 yards — the second-most in school history — in a 46-16 win over the Tar Heels last season at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"We have a tall order ahead of us — going back to ACC country and playing those guys on the road after getting them pretty good when they came out here last year," Whittingham said. "I'm sure that's still on their minds."

The journey carries additional baggage. Chapel Hill, N.C., will mark Utah's longest football trip since a 38-29 loss at Florida in 1977.

"I don't think it's overrated," Whittingham said. "We're going a day early to try and get a little more acclimated and get the jet-lag factor factor out of our system and so forth."

The Utes, he explained, will do so with a healthy team that is doing good things. He is especially pleased with the development of Utah's first-year starters.

Whittingham is also looking forward to getting into a steady routine in terms of preparation. The Utes, thus far, have only played on Saturday once. They opened on a Friday and recently completed back-to-back Thursday night games.

"We've meticulously set up a game-week schedule and we've yet to use it — as far as the regular Saturday-to-Saturday routine," Whittingham said. "Even this week is a little different because we've got the extra couple of days."

The bottom line, though, is what matters most.

"It's good to be on Saturdays the rest of the way," Whittingham said.