SALT LAKE CITY — Season openers are nothing new for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. As a college football player and coach, he’ll experience his 37th one when the 25th-ranked Utes face North Dakota Thursday (5:30 p.m., P12N) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Rarely the sentimental type, Whittingham did acknowledge that some season openers hold special meaning.
As a player, Whittingham has fond memories of BYU’s 18-17 upset of No. 14 Texas A&M in Houston on Sept. 8, 1979. The Cougars scored a touchdown with 52 seconds remaining and successfully added a two-point conversion to prevail.
“No one gave us a chance to win and we went down there and beat them,” said Whittingham, who played special teams and was a backup linebacker as a sophomore on that squad.
As a coach, Whittingham recalled three openers with the Utes. The first was his debut as head coach — a 27-24 win at home over Arizona on Sept. 2, 2005.
“That was a tough, hard-fought game,” he recalled.
Whittingham then noted the season-opening victories over Michigan. The triumphs included a 25-23 decision in Ann Arbor (2008) and a 24-17 win in Salt Lake City (2015).
“Those two are great memories as well,” Whittingham said. “So there’s a few.”
Whittingham then, as expected, turned the conversation back to the task at hand. It’s served Utah well. The Utes are 10-2 in season openers under Whittingham and have won nine straight overall.
Getting to 10 won’t necessarily be easy. North Dakota won the Big Sky Conference last season and is the favorite to repeat as champions. The Fighting Hawks are ranked 10th in the preseason FCS coaches poll.
And, yes, Whittingham is well aware that FCS teams have a history of recording wins over FBS squads.
“First of all, we haven’t focused on anything but our season opener. We haven’t talked about anything besides North Dakota,” he said before moving on to his second point. “It’s very good football team and our guys respect that, understand that and I’ve sensed no lack of focus or concentration, or any of that stuff.”
Whittingham added that he feels like the Utes are right on task. They do so, however, with a lot of questions — such is the case with the hiring of a new offensive coordinator (Troy Taylor) and a vow to improve the passing game.
"Efficiency will be number one, making sure the offense is running the way it is supposed to run. Taking care of the football is always a huge factor in any football game,” Whittingham said. “We have to throw much better than we did last year. We have to throw more efficiently and have to get those big plays up the field more often. Just the overall mechanics of the offense needs to be smooth.”
Sophomore Tyler Huntley will be the starting quarterback. The former high school player of the year in Florida insists he’s comfortable running Taylor’s offense. Huntley wound up being the guy after a close competition in camp with seniors Troy Williams and Cooper Bateman.
“Tyler Huntley is a talented young man and a true dual threat quarterback,” Whittingham said. “He won the job. It is plain and simple."
Among the receiving targets for Huntley is graduate transfer Darren Carrington II. He was dismissed from Oregon following an offseason arrest and landed at Utah. Whittingham said Carrington II is a “perfect fit for what coach Taylor loves to do offensively.”
The Utes, though, still have some holes to fit after having a school-record eight players drafted by the NFL. Those moving to the next level include four starting offensive linemen and running back Joe Williams.
Sophomore Zack Moss is ticketed to replace the latter, while junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva is among those moving into the spots up front.
“We’ve got the talent. We’ve got the guys to do it,” he said. “We’ve just got to execute our plays.”
The Utes also have new starters on defense, particularly in the secondary. The cast includes safety Corrion Ballard as well as cornerbacks Julian Blackmon and Casey Hughes.
"I made a statement a couple of weeks ago that I think we can be better than we were last year,” Whittingham said.
Other storylines to watch include safety Chase Hansen’s status after missing most of preseason practice with an unspecified “lingering injury,” sophomore Bradlee Anae’s transition into a starting defensive end role, and new faces at place-kicker and long snapper.
On the other side of the ledger, though, Utah brings back a talented group of veterans that include senior defensive linemen Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokosi and Kylie Fitts, linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli, offensive lineman Salesi Uhatafe, and punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
“We know we’re in for a tough challenge but yet a tremendous opportunity to test our team against a top-25 team in the FBS. We have a lot of respect for coach Whittingham and what he’s done,” said North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert. “They’ve been very strong on defense for a number of years and now with the change on offense — we’re familiar with coach Taylor and what he did at Eastern Washington — and that will be challenging for us to prepare for a high-powered offense that he installs out there."