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‘It’s us against the world’: Having dealt with plenty of adversity, Utah embracing chance for a fresh start

The Utes return home and will have a new starting quarterback as they open Pac-12 play against Washington State

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. After a tough start to the season, Whittingham and the Utes take a clean slate into their Pac-12 opener Saturday against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

For all of the things that haven’t gone right this season for Utah, there is at least one silver lining.

The Utes have a chance at a fresh start.

Coming off back-to-back losses, Utah opens Pac-12 play Saturday (12:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network) in its homecoming game against Washington State. The Utes also have a new starting quarterback, Cam Rising.

Many have dismissed Utah due to its 1-2 start, but for the Utes, it’s like a new season; an opportunity to overcome adversity. They’re embracing their clean slate.

“That’s one thing we’re trying to focus on. It’s so much easier said than done. Blocking out all of the noise and all of the expectation from the outside is really hard to do,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “Right now, it’s easier for us to do because a lot of people have written us off. Yet we’re going into something 0-0 in Pac-12 play. It’s exciting. It’s us against the world.”

“It’s the Pac-12 opener. We’re 0-0 in Pac-12 play. That’s the mentality right now,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got a fresh start. The nonconference games went nothing like we expected or anticipated. Now we’re on to conference play.”

For the Utes, this marks their first 1-2 start since 2007. Since falling 33-31 in dramatic fashion last Saturday to San Diego State, in triple-overtime, there’s been even more drama.

There was a players-only meeting on Sunday. On Tuesday, starting quarterback Charlie Brewer decided to leave the program.

Rising rallied the Utes late in the game and threw three touchdown passes. What is he expecting this week in his first start of the season?

“Just play with swagger,” he said. “This is a team that has athletes from top to bottom — running back room, receiver room, tight end room, O-line room — we’ve got everything that we need on this team right now and just making sure that we play with swagger from the get-go.”

Whittingham is optimistic about how the offense will respond with Rising taking the snaps from the start of the game.

“It was encouraging to see us catch some fire on offense and get some confidence and see those guys move the ball and compete like they did,” he said. “That was a very positive thing to have happen. It’s the way he came in the game as a spark and moved the team. He threw three touchdown passes and showed some mobility.

“That’s another strength of his. We felt as a staff that he came in and did exactly what we hoped he would do. It took a couple of series to settle in but once he got in a rhythm, he did good.”

The Utes have made it no secret that they have their sights on capturing a Pac-12 championship. The South Division appears to be up for grabs.

“Our goal has not changed at all. Our goal is still very much in sight. We’re very capable of achieving that goal,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “We haven’t played our best ball; we haven’t played anywhere near our potential in the last couple of games.

“We plan on changing that. That’s why we were so urgent about the players’ meeting and getting everybody bought in and getting back to the basics. We know that we can still attain our goal.”

During a difficult two-week stretch in the program, Whittingham likes the way his team has carried itself.

“I don’t think there are any signs of bad attitude. Everybody’s upbeat. Everyone’s more angry and frustrated than they are despondent. One thing I did notice the first two games is, things didn’t go great early and so we got that deer-in-the-headlight look in our eyes. We can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to fight for the full 60.

“If things don’t go well early, so what? Keep fighting. Keep playing and fight through the adversity. Nothing’s easy at this level. It’s hard to win a game. You’ve got to stay focused and confident for the full 60 minutes.”

Covey believes his team’s late rally can carry over to Saturday — and beyond.

“I hope that’s a metaphor for our season,” he said. “What I hope to see was the last game being very similar to how our season goes. You start off bad and then you finish strong.”

For months, Whittingham has been talking to his team about its potential. The Utes may have provided a glimpse of that potential in the fourth quarter against San Diego State.

“We haven’t quite seen it on the field. It’s not until you see it that you can truly believe it. We all saw it in the fourth quarter,” Covey said. “Now there’s a lot more belief behind it. At this point, with two losses, I don’t want to say anything that’s going to set expectations for us to win all these games. I just know that our team is in a much better head space right now.”

The Utes have a chance at a fresh start — starting Saturday against Washington State.

“The message is, everything is focused on Washington State. We’re opening up Pac-12 play. We are 0-0 in conference play,” said tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham. “Our goal is to win the Pac-12 South. That’s what it’s been all about, just getting it done this weekend against Washington State.”