LOS ANGELES — It’s difficult enough during a college football season to manage challenges while trying to improve every week and win games.
For Utah, that degree of difficulty has been heightened dramatically with what has befallen it recently.
Defensive back Aaron Lowe tragically died on Sept. 26, reminding everyone once again that there’s more to life than football.
It’s been therapeutic for Utah’s players and coaches to prepare for a game as they grieve the loss of Lowe.
“There’s a time to mourn and there’s a time to work. It’s important for not only football players but everyone in life. We’re all human,” said center Nick Ford. “There are consequences emotionally from what happened. We’ve used time to mourn and appreciate and celebrate life and we’ve also used time to make sure that we were working and staying on top of things.”
On the field, despite back-to-back nonconference defeats against BYU and San Diego State, the Utes are undefeated in Pac-12 play.
There’s no doubt that a victory over the Trojans would be a major accomplishment for Utah.
“It would be huge. Every win is huge for your morale and your momentum in the season,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “Right now, we’re sitting in a good spot. We’ve only played one game in conference but us and Arizona State are the only teams in the (Pac-12) South that haven’t lost. We couldn’t be in a better spot conference-wise.”
Wide receiver Britain Covey agreed.
“It would be wonderful. This season has been such a weird season in all matters and in all senses of the word,” he said. “To look at what we’re doing right now and realize that you’re 1-0 in Pac-12 play and there’s only three teams in the conference without a (league) loss ... and we’re in that position after all that has happened and how crazy that it’s been?
“To go in there and realize that there’s still something beautiful and awesome that could come out of this season. A win would really spark that, I think. We’ve been waiting for this team to spark. It would be really great to have a spark down there in L.A.”
It’s no secret that Utah has never won at the Coliseum. Why has it been so difficult for the Utes to win there?
“It’s a great crowd, typically. It has such tradition. It shouldn’t bother us. Hopefully we go down there and play better,” Whittingham said. “Our track record at the Coliseum hasn’t been good. But that’s history. We’re hoping that has no bearing on this year.”
Whittingham delivered a simple message to his team this week as it prepares for USC.
“The message is we’ve got to prepare and have a great week of practice, just like it takes to win any ball game. You’ve got to do your work Monday through Friday. That’s our challenge,” he said. “They had a terrific week of practice during the Washington State week. That was our best week of practice and preparation of the whole year. I think it showed, although we put the ball on the ground a bunch of times.
“For the most part, particularly on defense, it showed. That’s the same message. Our guys know what it takes to win at this level. It’s very challenging and it’s all-encompassing,” he continued. “You’ve got to do things right all week long — you’ve got to eat, sleep, hydrate, practice, lift, study film. There’s so much to process. They understand that. There really is no way around that, regardless of circumstances.”
Quarterback Cam Rising said the offensive line “showed drastic improvements (against WSU). I can see them continuing to grow and continuing to get better. I’m very happy with that. We just need to play our game. We need to stop trying to force it and just really focus on what we do and do it and do it at a high level.”
Ford said that the momentum built during the 24-13 win over Washington State, just before the bye week, could propel the Utes this week.
“A lot of teams across the country have a bye week and they come out slow the next Monday,” he said. “We came out (Monday), everyone’s flying around with high energy. Usually people come out sluggish and slow. The tempo was good from the start. I think the momentum is in our favor right now. We need to keep the table spinning right now.”
As tough as the past week-and-a-half has been for Utah, Whittingham expects that his players will be locked in on Saturday night.
“When you get into a football game, you go into game mode, a different state of mind,” he said. “When a football player is in game mode, he blocks everything else out and focuses on what’s going on.”
Defensive line coach Lewis Powell said this past week has been tough as the program has mourned the death of both Lowe and Jordan, who each wore No. 22. But there are ways to honor their memories.
“The guys have a good mindset,” he said. “They’re excited to move in tribute of No. 22. Both No. 22s. We’re doing what we think they would want us to do.”