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Utah football: Utes look to capitalize on favorable early schedule

SHARE Utah football: Utes look to capitalize on favorable early schedule
We want to make Rice-Eccles a place that is very tough for our opponents to come in and play. – Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Not so long ago, Utah put together quite a winning streak at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Beginning with a 44-6 win over UCLA on Sept. 15, 2007, the Utes reeled off 21 consecutive victories on the hill. The run, however, came to a crashing halt on Nov. 6, 2010. That’s the day when third-ranked TCU overpowered fifth-ranked Utah, 47-7.

Since then, a lot of changes have taken place, and home wins haven’t been as frequent. Utah’s move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 has altered the landscape. The Utes are just 7-5 at home since making the switch. Two of those wins have been against Big Sky Conference opponents (Montana State and Northern Colorado) and one was last year’s 24-21 thriller over BYU.

Other than that, Utah’s success at home has been tempered by adjustments to the Pac-12. The Utes have defeated Oregon State and UCLA in Salt Lake City, but have lost to Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, USC and Washington.

Utah senior Trevor Reilly notes that the numbers are skewed because of the Pac-12’s better overall depth compared to the Mountain West.

“But at the same time you can’t make excuses. You’ve got to win football games,” he said. “Every game we go out and expect to win. When we don’t do it, that’s on us.”

Re-establishing Rice-Eccles Stadium as an extremely difficult venue for visiting teams, though, won’t be easy. This year’s conference slate features Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and Colorado.

“We want to make Rice-Eccles a place that is very tough for our opponents to come in and play,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who acknowledged that home-field advantage is something that has been very good for the Utes in years past and still is in terms of sellout crowds, the MUSS and everything involved with that.

Getting more wins, however, is always the bottom line.

“We’ve got to do our best to get that corrected,” Whittingham said. “But it also has a great deal to do with who’s coming into your stadium week in and week out. I mean, that’s very obvious, too.”

Although challenging and difficult, this season’s schedule offers an opportunity for Utah to make a statement at home. For the first time since 1970, the Utes open with three consecutive games in Salt Lake City. After Thursday’s opener against Utah State, they’ll play host to Weber State and Oregon State on consecutive Saturdays.

“If we can end up 3-0 it would be a big, big difference from last year and the year before where we’re fighting out of a hole,” Reilly said. “… It’s just a better feeling.”

Utah opened the past two seasons with 2-3 and 2-5 records, respectively.

Reilly acknowledged the schedule provides a great way to get the program back on track after missing out on a bowl game last year.

“The schedule plays perfect into our advantage,” said senior defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi, who noted the importance of getting off to a good start. “To be able to have all those home games early on in the season is going to be a big key for us.”

Besides opening the season with three consecutive home games, the Utes will also play five of their first six on their home turf — something the program hasn’t done for 98 years.

Following a trip to BYU on Sept. 21 and a bye the following week, Utah returns home to take on UCLA (Oct. 3) and Stanford (Oct. 12).

“I think that’s definitely a plus. Last year we won a lot of our home games. I think that’s definitely a good way to start the season,” said sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson. “We don’t really leave the state of Utah for a while, so I think that’s definitely a plus for our schedule, and we’ve just got to make sure we capitalize on those opportunities.”

Every game, Wilson added, presents a challenge — especially in Pac-12 play.

“This is definitely a tough conference and there’s a lot of good teams in here,” Wilson said. So we’ve got to make sure we play to our ability, and I think if we play how we should, then we can compete with any team.”

The focus, though, is on the opener.

“Right now, we’re just worried about Utah State,” Reilly said. “Hopefully we can take care of that and then we’ll worry about (the rest) as it comes.”

When the season progresses, however, Whittingham said that it becomes a bit of a "double-edged sword." Utah plays four of its final six games on the road. The Utes visit Arizona, USC, Oregon and Washington State. They host Arizona State after a bye week in the middle of the trips and then close things out against Colorado.

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer