CORVALLIS, Ore. — Amazing what winning three consecutive games can do for a program.
Utah is experiencing that winning feeling right now, having won three games in a row and having jumped to the top of the Pac-12 South standings. Not to mention the Utes are the only Pac-12 team that’s unbeaten in league play.
The key now is to maintain that upward trajectory.
Utah opens the second half of its 2021 schedule Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network) at Oregon State. It’s expected to be a wet and rainy night at Reser Stadium.
It seems like a long time ago since the Utes dropped two straight games in September.
“I feel like we’re more of a tight-knit group now. At the beginning of the year, we had very, very high expectations. The fact that we lost those two big games against BYU and SDSU, we had a lot of doubters,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “A lot of people doubted what we could accomplish. That helped us as a team focus on ourselves instead of on outside noise.”
At the end of September, defensive back Aaron Lowe died tragically and it brought the team together even more.
“The understanding and meaning of family became bigger for us. We’re all brothers here. Losing a brother like that, it made us even tighter. Everybody is checking up on each other,” Vele said. “Everybody is making sure we’re doing the right thing, showing up on time for meetings, doing the little things. That’s making the biggest difference right now. We understand our ‘why’ of why we’re doing everything right now. We’re not being selfish anymore. We’re not looking for selfish stats. We’re playing as a team. That’s been the biggest difference.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham said this group of players enjoy playing the game.
“Every team has its own personality and chemistry. This team is really fun to be around. There’s a lot of great leaders,” he said. “The leadership has been outstanding. The personality of this team is, I don’t want to say jovial, but they’re having a lot of fun. We have a lot of guys that love football and it shows.”
How does running back Tavion Thomas describe the atmosphere around the team the past few weeks?
“The vibe is nice. I’ve been waiting for it since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’re playing with swag. This is what I like. We’ve got to keep it up though. We’ve got to finish strong.”
Now that Utah is in first place in the Pac-12 South, the Utes have a giant target on their back. But they say the mentality stays the same.
“The main thing is we still view ourselves as the hunter. That’s the mentality that’s going on right now. We still feel like we’re the hunters,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “We don’t have our respect because … sweet, if everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon now, where were you two weeks ago? That kind of thing. We still keep that chip on our shoulder.”
Through its winning streak, the Utes have proven to be a strong second-half team. If there’s something that they are looking to improve on, it’s starting faster.
“This year, for whatever reason, we’ve proven to be a pretty good second-half team,” Whittingham said. “We seem to be stronger in the second half this year. That’s been our M.O. Our guys do a really good job of hanging in there and overcoming adversity and handling adversity. That’s been the storyline this year.”
How have the Utes been able to get better as the games have gone on?
“Halftime adjustments are big. It’s a credit to our assistant coaches and coordinators for making those adjustments,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to make them throughout the game, not just halftime. If you wait until halftime, it’s too late a lot of the time.”
“I think it’s all about playing with swagger. Good coaches know how to let your guys go out there and play with what makes them special,” Covey said. “Play with what you’re given by God. We need to come out with that a little bit more early in the game. It’s a personality type of thing. You have guys that bring it as well. We need to start earlier, though.”
Of course, Utah’s three-game winning streak began with quarterback Cam Rising earning the starting job.
“He’s made a huge impact. I call him ‘Crazy Cam.’ He brings the juice. He brings swag and he brings out that dog in us,” Thomas said. “That’s what I love about him. ... Everything is different with Cam in there. I like playing with him.”
Covey said Rising has been instrumental in the Utes’ ability to withstand challenges and overcome adversity.
“Cam has some swagger to him. You’ll never catch Cam not smiling. His season-ending injury last year, he was literally on the sideline, smiling, two seconds after. That’s just who he is. He’s always been that guy through the highs and lows that’s there to encourage you,” he said. “You’ll go to war for someone like that. You’ll run through a brick wall for someone that is constantly there for you.
“That’s what it is about Cam. He’s been there for us during the highs and lows. We just trust him in this offense. He’s had the advantage of being in this system for about three years now. He understands all the ins and outs. It’s a pretty complex system. It gives the players and coaches a little bit of leeway to let it roll.”
Rising gives credit to the guys surrounding him.
“The team is gelling and O line is doing a phenomenal job along with the tight ends and the running backs,” he said. “It’s making me more comfortable back there in the pocket. It’s nice having those guys doing such a good job.”
For Vele, there’s still a lot to prove heading into late October. What does he want to see the rest of the season?
“Keeping the consistency going, keeping these wins coming and running the table so that we can go to that Pac-12 championship and prove all of the doubters wrong,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”