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‘We still have our best football ahead of us’: Can No. 20 Utah ‘bounce back’ against No. 7 USC?

With such high expectations going into the season, how do the Utes stay together as they host No. 7 USC Saturday?

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Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) gets tackled by UCLA Bruins defensive back William Nimmo Jr.

Utah Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) gets tackled by UCLA Bruins defensive back William Nimmo Jr. (32) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Six weeks into the college football season, Utah, which had its sights on back-to-back Pac-12 championships and a berth in the College Football Playoff, finds itself with a 4-2 overall record.

It’s the identical record the Utes had last year after six games. 

Following a 42-32 loss at UCLA, Utah dropped nine spots Sunday to No. 20 in the Associated Press poll. The Bruins supplanted the Utes at No. 11. 

So with such high expectations going into the season, how do the Utes stay together as they host No. 7 USC Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, Fox)?

“You’ve just got to have unwavering belief and make sure that you’re there for your guys no matter what,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “I still think that we have our best football ahead of us. We’ve got to make sure that we put it together and really execute throughout the week so that we’re flying around come Saturdays.”

Whittingham said the 4-2 record means his team is “eerily in a very similar situation as we were last year at about this time.”

However, there’s at least one big difference — a year ago, the Utes were 3-0 in Pac-12 play. Now, they’re 2-1. 

With the Trojans, a top-10 opponent, coming to town. 

But Whittingham emphasized that the season is far from over.

“I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that nobody goes through this conference undefeated. There’s too many good teams,” he said. “We’re by no means out of contention. The key now is for us to pick ourselves up and go back to work on Monday, address our deficiencies, and become a better football team next week.

“Because it doesn’t get any easier next week, I can tell you that for certain. We’ve got a good team coming into Rice-Eccles next week. We’ve got to be ready to play our ‘A’ game. We will be. Our guys will bounce back and they’ll play well next week.”

After the game, Whittingham said he talked to his players about the 2021 campaign — which ended at the Rose Bowl with a loss to Ohio State — and reminded them that the Utes won nine of 10 games to end the regular season. 

Utah is hoping for a similar finish this time. 

“This is very reminiscent of last year. We picked ourselves off the mat last year and regrouped. We came back focused and played some really good football,” Whittingham said. “That’s what we’ve got to do this year. It’s how you respond. Everyone would love to go undefeated.

“But at the end of the day, there’s probably maybe one undefeated team at the end of the regular season. You’ve gotta respond. Everyone has to respond from losses at one point or another. You just hope it’s not too often.”

Cornerback Clark Phillips, who scored on a pick-six Saturday for the second consecutive game, bristled when it was suggested that this Utah team isn’t as hungry, or doesn’t have the same mojo, as it did last season. 

“Personally, I have all the confidence in the world in my guys. I ain’t lost no confidence in them since Game 1,” he said. “Those are the same group of guys I’d go war with every single day. I feel good about the vibe, personally. I feel good about it. We just gotta make more plays, gotta play our assignments and when plays come our way, we’ve got to make them.”

Phillips added that, as a team leader, keeping the locker room focused and united is “super important” heading into next weekend’s showdown against USC. 

“It’s never as good or as bad as it seems. As a team, we’re going to watch the film and get back in the lab and nothing can break us,” Phillips said. “We’ve been through the wringer; so I feel very confident about these dudes and I’m ready to go play.”

No. 7 USC (6-0, 4-0) at No. 20 Utah (4-2, 2-1)

Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: Fox

Radio: ESPN 700