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Utah-Weber State game may feel like old home week, but will be all business

There are connections galore between Utah and Weber State in season opener — but when the whistle blows don’t expect things to be warm and fuzzy

Utah Utes coach Kyle Whittingham, right, and Weber State Wildcats coach Jay Hill talk before game in Salt Lake City.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, right, and Weber State Wildcats head coach Jay Hill talk before game in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

For No. 24 Utah, the season opener against Weber State will feel a little like a family reunion.

Let’s just say the coaching staffs are very familiar with each other.

Weber State head coach Jay Hill played for the Utes in the late 1990s and later was an assistant at Utah under coach Kyle Whittingham. A few of Hill’s assistants, like Andre Dyson, Joe Dale and Robert Conley, are also former Ute players.

Utah linebacker Colton Swan, meanwhile, coached at Weber State from 2004-18.

Last week, Hill announced that Gary Andersen, who was a longtime assistant coach at Utah, as well as the former head coach at Utah State (twice), Wisconsin and Oregon State, has been hired as a volunteer staff member, serving as an adviser while assisting the defensive coaching staff.

“I’ve always told Gary that if there’s ever anything that I can do for him, he did so much for me. He was the one that recruited me to Utah,” Hill said of Andersen. “He was the one, when he became defensive coordinator, I worked under him. He’s one of the best coaches in the country. We all know it. He’s been a Power Five head coach at two different schools. To have him come in and help us is obviously a blessing for us. It was very mutual. He wants to be around the players; he wants to be around the game.”

Whittingham said all that familiarity won’t impact Thursday’s game.

But he did acknowledge that “there’s a lot of common ground between the two teams. A lot of players and guys that either coached or played at Weber. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys. Robert Conley, Joe Dale, guys we haven’t seen in a while. It’s always good to see Jay. Gary will be there now. No effect on the game but it will be good to see those guys.”

Weber State is an FCS opponent for Utah but it is a top-level FCS program. The Wildcats won 11 games in 2017, 10 in 2018, 11 in 2019 and posted a 5-1 mark when the Big Sky played a spring season earlier this year due to the pandemic.

Weber State advanced to the FCS playoff quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018 and earned its way to the FCS semifinals in 2019.

Last spring, the Wildcats won their fourth consecutive Big Sky championship and lost in the first round of the FCS playoffs, 34-31 to Southern Illinois.

“Weber State is a good team — a playoff team in the FCS every single year,” Whittingham said. “Jay Hill’s done a great job there. They’re a team that is well-coached and very sound fundamentally. We’re excited to get the season underway.”

Weber State running back Josh Davis runs the ball against Montana Western during game in Ogden on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
Weber State running back Josh Davis runs the ball against Montana Western during game in Ogden on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Weber State junior running back Josh Davis returns as a two-time All-American and a three-time All-Big Sky first-team selection. Davis enters the fall season ranked fourth in Wildcat history in career rushing yards with 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns. He is also eighth in WSU history in career all-purpose yards with 3,711 yards.

“He’s just a tough kid; a hard runner,” Whittingham said of Davis. “He’s instinctive and makes positive yards and can make something out of nothing. He can get extra yards after contact. He’ll be a challenge.”

This is the first meeting between Utah and Weber State since 2018, when the two programs collided in the season opener that season. The Utes won, 41-10.

“We’re a way more veteran team (than in 2018),” Hill said. “(Utah) had a lot of turnovers although they’re probably just as talented. In a way, that should be good for us … We came out of the gates in 2018 excited, ready to go, not backing down. We played good in the first half. We just kind of wore out. Hopefully, we can do it again and do it for a full game.”

The Wildcats have used loudspeakers during practices to prepare for a large and loud crowd at the newly expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Freshman Bronson Barron, who quarterbacked Weber State last spring, will start and he’s also a team captain. In five games last season, he threw for 1,071 yards and seven touchdowns.

“I’m excited to see how he’s going to handle this atmosphere at the University of Utah and this defense, that is very good,” Hill said.

The Utes know that the Wildcats have playmakers.

“They’re an explosive offense. They have a really good running back,” said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. “It’s going to be a challenge but ultimately we’re a formidable team. It’s going to be a good game.”

What does Weber’s Davis expect from Utah’s vaunted defense?

“I guess they’re the closest version to us. They want to take your head off,” he said. “They play hard; they’re disciplined. That’s what they bring to the table.”

For Weber State, it’s been a short turnaround from the spring season to the fall season. The Wildcats finished their season in late April before starting fall camp in August.

Four starters that sustained injuries during the spring will not be available for Thursday’s game, Hill said. He added that he’s hopeful to get those players back later in the season.

“It’s been such a short time since we’ve played,” Davis said. “But our team has really pushed through it and done what they’ve needed to do to get back. We’ll come into this Utah game and show what we’ve got.”

Utah is looking for a strong showing to start the season.

“They’re a really good football team. They play really hard and they have a lot of really good players on defense,” quarterback Charlie Brewer said. “We’re going to have to come and play well. They win a lot of games on the FCS level. We’re going to have to play well, for sure.”