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After uneven start, Utes could still find themselves in the Pac-12 South driver’s seat

Early losses to BYU and San Diego State were offset by Pac-12 victories over Washington State and USC. If Utes can defeat No. 18 ASU Saturday they could make a run at a Pac-12 South title

Utah players enter the field before against Southern California Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Utah players enter the field before against Southern California Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

The University of Utah football season is not even half finished, but if the second half is anything like the first half then strap yourself in for a turbulent ride and please remain seated until the season comes to a complete stop. These are the headlines of the young season to date:

Utah’s first loss to BYU in a dozen years. A triple-overtime loss to San Diego State. The departure of the team’s starting quarterback — the second time that has happened in nine months. The death of a Utah player from a gunshot — the second time that has happened in nine months — followed by a candlelight vigil, a murder investigation and a funeral. The Utes’ first victory over USC in Los Angeles since 1916

and their first ever in the Coliseum.

You couldn’t blame the Utes if football got lost in the distractions. The murder of Aaron Lowe, whose friend and teammate Ty Jordan died in December, cast a deep pall over the program. Notwithstanding, the Utes, wearing a decal that honored both players, played one of their most inspired games in years in Los Angeles last weekend. Following a pregame moment of silence for Lowe, the Utes manhandled the Trojans in a surprising display of offensive and defensive football.

After many of the players and coaches flew to Texas for Lowe’s funeral Monday, the Utes returned to the business of football the next day.

Utah, 3-2, was impressive in a 42-26 win over USC — one of the legendary brands in college football — but these are not your father’s Trojans, or even Pete Carroll’s Trojans. Were the Utes that good, or the Trojans that bad, or some of both?

USC fired its coach two games into the season and is still searching for his replacement; meanwhile, the Trojans have lost three of their five Pac-12 games, including one to perennial bottom dweller Oregon State. Given all of the above, do we even know what to make of the Utes, after five games?

The Utes are a mystery, but after all they have endured this season they find themselves with an opportunity. They are one of only two Pac-12 teams that are unbeaten in conference games — the other team being Arizona State, this week’s opponent.

The Sun Devils are 5-1, with their one loss coming at the hands of BYU in a close game that turned on one big play. They have beaten Colorado, UCLA and Stanford since then. They’re ranked 18th (one spot ahead of — what’s this? — BYU, the team they lost to).

It’s a sign of good coaching when coaches can make changes on the fly that produce results. After casting about for the first three weeks of the season looking for their best players, Ute coaches appear to have found them.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising looks to throw during game against Southern California Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez,. Associated Press

Quarterback Cam Rising, who started the season as a backup, has moved into a starting role and looks like a rising star. He came off the bench against San Diego State and almost rallied the team to a win, losing in triple-overtime. He is 2-0 as a starter and has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. Against USC he threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another.

It’s easy to wonder now why he wasn’t the starter to start the season, but, after a close competition in camp, he lost out to transfer Charlie Brewer, probably because the latter had experience as a four-year starter at Baylor. And some players just seem to perform better in games than in practice.

Through the first three games, the Utes were getting little production from the dozen transfers they signed in the offseason, but since then T.J. Pledger and Tavion Thomas have given the Utes a productive running game. Thomas had 113 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries against USC. Pledger had 117 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries the previous week against Washington State.

Rising, Thomas and Pledger have addressed some major shortcomings the Utes had on offense early in the season.

Despite stumbling through the first three weeks of the season, the Utes find themselves in a good position to make a run at the conference championship.