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What will be Utah’s focus during the bye week?

The Utes return to action on Oct. 27 at Washington State.

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Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, wearing black, runs out with his team.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham runs out with his team as Utah and USC play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Seven weeks into the season, No. 15 Utah is taking a little respite.

The Utes (5-2, 3-1) have their bye this week before visiting Washington State on a Thursday night — Oct. 27.

“It just gives us more time to prepare. It will give us a nice, little break from football,” said tight end Dalton Kincaid, who caught 16 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown last Saturday. “People will have the option to spend time with family, catch up on class, catch up on the body. It gives us a lot more time to prepare for (WSU) as well.”

It’s not a surprise that among the priorities for Utah in the coming days is to improve defensively. The Utes surrendered 556 yards in last Saturday’s 43-42 victory over then-No. 7 USC. 

“Figuring out why we’re deficient on defense right now and simplifying things and getting our players in the right frame of mind. As coaches, that’s our job. If we’re not playing well, that’s on us,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re getting great effort by the defenders; we’ve just got to put them in better position to succeed. That is Job No. 1.”

Whittingham has also been concerned about defending kickoff returns. Against the Trojans, Utah gave up a 42-yard return.

“I thought special teams took a small step forward. We still had a couple of issues on a couple kickoff returns,” he said. “We had some good play overall on special teams. Still work to be done there.”

What is cornerback Clark Phillips III focusing on during the bye?

“Everything. We try to get better every single week,” he said. “But I’d say we definitely need to be better in the secondary and the front seven. We’ve got to make sure we’re getting pressure on the (quarterback). We’ve got to make sure we continue to cover and make plays on the ball. We want to force turnovers and that’s something that we didn’t do in the last game.”

On the offensive side, quarterback Cam Rising threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran for a team-high 60 yards and three TDs.

Micah Bernard rushed 11 times for 37 yards and a touchdown, while Tavion Thomas ran eight times for 28 yards. There was a report that Thomas was disgruntled and didn’t finish the game.

Whittingham said Monday on Thomas’ status: “We’ll keep all that internal, regardless of what it is, unless there’s something that’s very permanent in nature.”

Another priority during the bye week is figuring out the depth chart at running back. 

“We’ve got some time to go through that and figure out what direction we’re going to go. Micah Bernard sure has been a huge value for us. Really, he’s a complete back,” Whittingham said. “He pass protects, he catches the ball out of the backfield and he runs effectively. We’ve got some good options. That question will be answered when we get back out there towards the end of this week.”

As for the Utes’ overall health, Whittingham is generally pleased. 

“We’re seven weeks in and we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve lost three guys to season-ending injuries, with (tight end Brant) Kuithe being the only full-time starter,” Whittingham said. “That’s not horrible. It’s better than most years. But that was a physical game on Saturday. We got some bumps and bruises. This bye comes at a great time in that regard.”

As Rising approached reporters to answer questions Monday, he was hobbling and his left knee was wrapped. 

“I’m still upright; still going good,” he said. “I’m still breathing.”

The Utes were expecting a physical game against USC. 

“We knew going in that it was going to be a physical game. That’s kind of identity,” Kincaid said. “We take pride in that, especially on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Going in there knowing it was going to be a 60-minute battle, a physical game. We’ve just got to outlast the other guys.”

Now it’s time for a little rest. But big games remain on Utah’s schedule, of course, starting with Washington State. 

“We look forward to every challenge. This one is going to be the most important one,” Phillips said about the Cougars. “We’ve got a big bye week coming up. So we want to get the recovery and get the rest and also prepare the best so we can dominate those guys.”