On a cold November night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah and USC players took the field in relative silence, devoid of the normal college football pageantry.
It was the 2020 season opener for the Utes and it couldn’t have been more surreal. Empty parking lots. Empty stands. No MUSS. No band. And ongoing construction on the south end zone side of the stadium provided an apocalyptic feel to the evening.
It was college football amid a pandemic.
“Nothing feels regular right now. Having that stadium empty was bizarre,” coach Kyle Whittingham said after the 33-17 loss to the Trojans. “It was something you have to experience to understand. It was weird.”
Later, he added, “During the breaks, you look around. … Not trying to say it was an impact on the game. We certainly missed our home crowd. Our home crowd is awesome. That certainly provides us an advantage.”
Given the unusual circumstances — there were times when it looked like the Pac-12 season might not be played at all, or postponed until the spring — after his first college game, freshman cornerback Clark Phillips III was just glad to be on the field, doing what he loves.
“It’s definitely unique. But in 2020, nothing surprises me anymore. We’ve had a really, really strange, different year,” he said. “But I’m super glad to be on the field. We are getting a season. We recognize that blessing. But definitely not what I imagined if you would have asked me probably a year or two ago. But I’m definitely excited that we get football at all.”
In the end, Utah played only five games in 2020.
As the 2021 campaign approaches, with Utah hosting Weber State Thursday (5:30 p.m., MDT, Pac-12 Network) in the season opener, everybody is hoping for a “normal” season, one with at least 12 games.
It will mark the Utes’ first contest in front of their home fans at Rice-Eccles since a 45-15 win over Colorado on Nov. 30, 2019 — Senior Day.
Utah will also be debuting its newly expanded stadium on Thursday, an $80 million project that increased the seating capacity to 51,444.
The expansion also includes the unveiling of the Ken Garff Red Zone, located in the south end zone.
The Ken Garff Red Zone features new home and visiting locker rooms, sports medicine facilities and hospitality areas, the University Club restaurant, Diglisic Lounge, Layton Field Club and various premium seating options, including suites, loge boxes, ledge, club and premium terrace seating as well as additional bleacher seating.
Utah has waited a long time for the new season to kick off.
“I’m so excited. Last year, we got five games and this year, hopefully we get the full season if the Lord blesses us,” Phillips said. “I can’t wait to win something special with the guys. We have guys that came back that could have left. That speaks to where the team is. I think we’re going to do something special.”
“Excited for the season to get going. Hoping and praying for a normal season. It’s going to be great to get fans back in the stands,” Whittingham said. “We have a huge home-field advantage at Utah.
“We’ve had 10-plus years of sellouts in a row, which spans some 70 games. We’ve just added a south end zone expansion to the stadium to bring it up about 5,000 or 6,000 more seats. Looking forward to that home-field advantage that we have at Rice-Eccles.”
Said defensive end Mika Tafua: “I’m looking forward to coming onto the field and there being some kind of noise, not just, ‘Oh, it’s a scrimmage today,’” he said. “I’m excited to see the south end zone. I’m excited to play.
“I’m a lot more confident going into this year. The ending of that COVID year, we got things going on defense. That made me even more excited to get going this year.”
For players like the freshmen, who played last season but did so without crowds, there will be an adjustment period, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said.
“We’re young in the sense that we haven’t even played in front of a crowd with some of these guys,” Scalley said. “They’re not used to the ebb and flow of the good things that happen in a game and drawing off of a crowd; or getting booed by the opposing crowd or the opposing crowd going nuts if you give up a play.
“There’s a lot that they have yet to experience. That’s something you can’t really replicate or prepare them for until they experience it firsthand.”
Wide receiver Britain Covey said playing in front of a big, loud crowd can be intimidating. When he was a young player, he spent time preparing for it.
“I just remember visualizing every single day leading up to the game, imagining it, so that when I went out there, it was like I had done it 100 times in my backyard,” he said. “I can usually sense what guys are going to feel that and I try to talk with them early on. I remember (freshman safety) Nate Ritchie last year was pretty nervous. I took him aside.”
How is freshman defensive end Xavier Carlton feeling about playing in front of fans, and his family?
“I’m excited but a little scared. Playing in front of 52,000 people and my parents are going to be there. It’s going to be awesome. I’m doing this for myself and for my family and representing the Carlton name,” he said.
“I am excited. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 6 years old. My dad played at the University of Utah and he told me stories about playing at the U. It resonated with me. My dad’s been my hero since I was 6. He’s been coaching me since I was little. He was my personal trainer and my coach. He’s always taught me to play the game. A lot of people ask, ‘Did you come here because of your dad?’ I love the University of Utah. It’s always been my dream school. It’s awesome.”
Like his teammates, defensive tackle Devin Kaufusi has been waiting a long time for a game in front of a crowd, and a chance to honor Ty Jordan, who passed away last December.
“I’m hoping to for sure have a full season with my teammates. With all of the hard work we’re doing, and the guys all want to win and we’re paying the price for that. It’s a special energy and mindset that everyone has,” Kaufusi said. “I want a full stadium at Rice-Eccles. That stadium is amazing. It took my breath away when I walked into the scrimmage.
“It’s a different feeling and the fans are going to love it. Having fans in the stadium at a brand-new Rice-Eccles is going to be one of the top atmospheres in college football,” Kaufusi continued. “That’s what we all really want. And especially to pay it forward for Ty Jordan. He was such a crucial part of the success of last season and his impact on this team. We have him in mind in our prayers and hearts. We’d love to do everything we can to represent him.”
After a bizarre 2020 season, that familiar home-field advantage will be back. Utah is hoping to play football in front of 52,000 of their closest friends at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2021 — with full parking lots, full stands, the MUSS and the band.
College football the way it’s supposed to be.