clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Utah vs. North Dakota is an examination, but not a test

SALT LAKE CITY — The preparation work is over and Kyle Whittingham isn’t sad to see it go. After a month of practice, Thursday’s season opener against North Dakota sounds oh-so-appealing.

Whittingham was asked last week if playing North Dakota, “will be the most beautiful thing you’ve seen in a long time.”

“The state,” he said, “or the team?”

After some back-and-forth banter, another media member cut in.

“What about the state of North Dakota?” he said, admitting he’d never been there.

“I haven’t either,” Whittingham said, “but I looked up the weather — in the 70s all August — so it seems like a pleasant place. But I’ve never set foot in either South or North Dakota. Someday … someday.”

Whittingham seemed relived to have something to talk about besides football.

“Where’s Sturgis at?” he said. “South Dakota? Maybe I’ll go to Sturgis one day.”

“With (wife) Jamie on the back (of a motorcycle)?” somebody said.

“Absolutely,” Whittingham answered. “All leathered up.”

But enough about motorcycle rallies and the Dakotas. The Utes are hosting this year’s Big Sky Conference favorite. Even so, a loss to an FCS team would be as rare as a solar eclipse. Utah is 38-0 all-time against Big Sky Conference teams.

This is the first of Utah’s non-conference games this year, followed by BYU and San Jose State. Whittingham’s methodology is to schedule an FCS opponent, a mid-major opponent and a Power 5 opponent.

What the Utes will get out of the North Dakota game is what they always get: a first peek under live conditions. The game probably won’t answer whether Tyler Huntley is the quarterback they hope, but it will provide clues. Whether it provides serious competition is unlikely.

But besides a live event, the Utes will be looking to address some of their more serious issues. Safety Chase Hansen could get his first real test since sustaining an injury at the start of camp. He admitted to being winded and out of shape after a three-week layoff.

“It’s a long way back to where I was,” he said. “It’s like starting over.”

After losing eight players to the NFL draft, there is plenty to replace. The offensive line is still questionable. Top running back Armand Shyne is out for several weeks, minimum, with an injury. The unproven secondary, as of last week, was far from peak form. And Utah’s placekicking game is a question mark after the departure of “Automatic” Andy Phillips.

While upsets happen (remember Appalachian State vs. Michigan, 2007), they are a rarity. Utah hasn’t always impressed, but the score was seldom close. Last year it was 24-0 over Southern Utah. In 2014 it was 56-14 over Idaho State. Before that it was Weber State (70-7), Northern Colorado (41-0) and Montana State (27-10).

Nary an upset in the bunch.

Still, dress rehearsals serve a purpose. That’s more important than it may seem. With the schedule Utah plays, a loss could trigger all kinds of alarms. Who else on the schedule would be beatable? The Utes would have to take comfort in the fact Michigan went on to a 9-4 record in 2007, beating Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

Although early-season games cause fans to roll their eye and media to scoff, for the players it’s lights on.

“Absolutely,” Hansen said. “First game of the year. At this point, guys just want to compete against something other than themselves.”

Whittingham isn’t saying how many series Huntley will get. He says it would be nice to get off to a fast start, then start substituting.

“But that’s secondary,” Whittingham said. “First of all is to take care of business …Like I said, we’ve got our hands full with these guys.”

That’s a generous assessment, but still.

Utah is picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South, but is the only team that hasn’t won the South Division. Whittingham has that on his wish list, just like his plan to visit North Dakota.

Someday … someday.