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‘Unfinished business’: Can No. 14 Utah avenge last year’s ‘bitter’ loss to San Diego State?

For the Utes, it was a painful setback. Saturday is a chance for some payback in Salt Lake City

SHARE ‘Unfinished business’: Can No. 14 Utah avenge last year’s ‘bitter’ loss to San Diego State?
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising runs the ball during game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising runs the ball during game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. Rising and the rest of the Utes hope to get the bad taste of last year’s loss to the Aztecs out of their mouth when the two teams meet Saturday night in Salt Lake City.

Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Utah running back Micah Bernard remembers walking out of ​​Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, one year ago after the Utes’ 33-31 triple-overtime setback against San Diego State.

The game took place near his hometown and it was the first time his nieces had watched him play in person. 

“That was heartfelt for me,” Bernard recalled. 

Then reality sank in. 

“I was like, ‘We just lost this game that we should have won.’ It was a hard ride back home. But we turned it around the next week.”

Indeed, that loss was a defining moment for the Utes, who left Carson with a 1-2 record but ended up winning nine of their next 10 games and capturing their first Pac-12 championship. 

“It was a turning point. We caught fire. That felt good,” Bernard said. “We all had a wake-up call. We knew what we wanted, we knew how to achieve that and that’s what we got done.”

Now the No. 14 Utes have a shot to avenge last year’s loss to SDSU Saturday (8 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).

“We have a San Diego State team coming in here that put one on us last year,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ve got to be prepared and ready.”

Quarterback Cam Rising, who came off the bench and rallied the Utes to a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter to force overtime, certainly hasn’t forgotten what happened last year against the Aztecs. 

“We’ve talked about it. We’re not happy,” he said. “But we’re looking forward to the opportunity to get back out there and play them.”

Whittingham said his team “has unfinished business” against SDSU.

“That was a loss that was very bitter. We need to do everything we can to prepare to have a better showing because that was frustrating,” he said. “Not taking away anything from San Diego State because they’re a good team. I’m not saying that there’s no way we should never lose to those guys or anything like that because they’re good. We just didn’t play well.”

Among other things, last year against SDSU, the Utes allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, missed a PAT and a field goal, forced only one turnover and recorded only one sack. And they allowed 204 yards rushing and they gained only 70 yards on the ground themselves. 

Since last year, Bernard said he’s watched that game 10 times in an attempt to learn and get better. 

“Just a lot of mistakes. I know I could have had way more yards and big plays,” he said. “A lot of mistakes on my part. There were mistakes everywhere on the offense. We fixed that.”

For Utah, it was a painful setback. Saturday is a chance for some payback.

“They did beat us last year. It was a great game but we still have a bad taste in our mouth,” said offensive tackle Braeden Daniels. “We want that win from last year but we can’t get it back. We still have this year and another opportunity to get a ‘W’ this year.”

Last week, Utah bounced back from a 29-26 loss at Florida by trouncing Southern Utah 73-7.

Rising wants to see the offense continue to progress. 

“We started a little slow but we got it together and didn’t flinch. So it was a great opportunity for the team. We answered when needed,” he said. “Just putting the ball in the end zone. We did it 10 times. It doesn’t really happen every game so it’s nice to have one of those games. We’re a high-powered offense. We’ve got to keep that rolling.”

Whittingham liked what he saw from Rising last week. 

“I thought he responded outstandingly,” he said. “His numbers were terrific.”

Utah’s offense is in a much better place than it was last year at this time, according to Bernard. 

“The (offensive line is) doing pretty good. Last season right now, we weren’t good at all in the front line and in the backfield on the offensive side of the ball,” he said. “That’s drastically changed. I think we’re doing great. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”

Daniels said the offense “still had some mistakes” against SUU last week. 

“We’re trying to get better each and every day. I was happy with our performance,” he said. “I think we did what we should have against that team. It was about winning. We weren’t happy with our performance in Florida but we did put some good things on tape and we did get better.

“I think this week against San Diego State we have another challenge, another big opportunity. It’s a different type of game. It’s not the SEC — but they do a lot more movement and pressuring. It’s something we have to get used to and it’s something we have to get ready for this week. I think we’ll be ready for it.”

At the end of September last year, the Utes tragically lost defensive back Aaron Lowe, months after losing running back Ty Jordan. Playing as a tribute to Lowe and Jordan also fueled Utah’s run in 2021. 

“We lost our brothers, Ty and ALowe. A bunch of different things happened. It was sitting down and becoming a fist instead of an open hand,” Daniels said. “Us coming together and really making that fist and becoming one team propelled us to the next level. We knew nobody could stop us.”

The Utes know they can’t take back that loss to SDSU last year. But they have an opportunity to avenge that bitter defeat. 

“Now that it’s San Diego State week, you have that bad taste in your mouth,” Bernard said. “The bad taste came back.”

Utes on the air

San Diego State (1-1) at No. 14 Utah (1-1) 

Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium 


Radio: ESPN 700