For eight months, amid national experts touting Utah’s program and its College Football Playoff aspirations, plenty of offseason attention was focused on last Saturday’s season-opening game at The Swamp against Florida.

The No. 13 Utes ended up losing a painful, last-minute 29-26 setback to the Gators, now ranked No. 12, in front of 90,000 fans and a national television audience. 

“You correct those things and you get ready for the next opponent because the next opponent could care less about how close you were to Florida.” — Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah

Now what?

On Saturday (11:30 a.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network) Utah hosts its home opener against in-state foe Southern Utah, one of the newest members of the Western Athletic Conference. 

But don’t expect the Utes to take this game lightly a week after one of the biggest season openers in school history. 

“I’m never worried about a letdown. I’m always looking to win. I’m always looking to prepare the right way and to do everything necessary to get us a ‘W’ on Saturday,” said defensive end Van Fillinger. “I’ll never say that I’m expecting a loss even if we were playing Alabama because we’re going to do everything it takes to prepare — regardless of whether that team is Alabama or SUU. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to come in and play our game and not go down to their level and just do as best as we can.”

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Cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said the emphasis this week has been all about improvement.

“You correct those things and you get ready for the next opponent because the next opponent could care less about how close you were to Florida,” he said. “They’re ready to come in here and kick you in the face. You come back and you just work.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham said his team has no choice but to put the loss to the Gators behind it. 

“Nobody feels sorry for us, nobody cares. You’ve got to move forward and play the next game, win or lose,” he said. “There’s no difference in the approach and practice and work habits. You’ve just got to continue to forge ahead. It’s a long season. It’s one in a 12-game season and you’ve got to be able to play every single week.”

The week began later than usual because the Utes experienced travel issues returning from Florida. They arrived back on campus 17 hours later than expected. 

But Whittingham said none of that matters now. 

“We have to worry about ourselves,” he said. “Who we play this week, at least today, is inconsequential until we get our own problems solved.”

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“We’ve got to be more productive in the red zone on offense and we need to be more productive on defense in the red zone,” Whittingham said. “We were too soft on D and not productive enough on O.”

Cornerback Clark Phillips III is confident that this team can bounce back from an early September loss. 

“All my faith lies with this team. I’ll tell you,” he said. “We’ve been through everything. There was no doubt in my mind when we were down by a little bit or a lot last season or the first week of this season. I have no doubt. We feel like we can come back from anything because we’ve been through everything.”

“It’s a new week. What happened was last week,” said running back Micah Bernard. “We’re focusing on Southern Utah. That’s what this week is about. We want to go 1-0 this week. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Bernard said the offense will show marked improvement this weekend. 

“It’s the first game so everybody expects mistakes and stuff to come out. We had a couple of those. But it’s nothing we can’t fix,” he said. “I’m excited for this team. What we showed on Saturday was just a glimpse. We’re going to take off from there.”

Gator fans cheer as Utah Utes fans show disappointment after a Gator score as Utah and Florida play in Gainesville, Fla.
Gator fans cheer as Utah Utes fans show their disappointment after a Gator score as Utah and Florida play in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Florida won 29-26. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Quarterback Cam Rising acknowledged that the offense has work to do. 

“There’s a lot of things that you have to clean up,” he said. “(Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) and I have talked about all the plays and we went through it. There’s a lot of stuff that I need to clean up as well … Getting the ball to the guys, giving them catchable balls to make sure they can make a play and advance the ball.”

Certainly, Whittingham is glad to be back home — and he’s happy about the early kickoff time. 

“It’s going to be great playing in front of our home crowd at Rice-Eccles,” he said. “It’s always something to look forward to. We look forward to an 11:30 kickoff, which is great.”

For Florida linebacker transfer Mohamoud Diabate, Saturday marks his home debut. 

“I’m definitely excited to put on that red jersey and play in front of the Ute fans,” he said. “I’m really excited to get out there and see what it’s all about and perform in front of them.”

“It’s going to be very exciting to see our home fans. Going back to The Swamp, I mean, The Swamp was The Swamp,” Bernard said. “We had a couple of fans there. I’m thankful for those that traveled. But we’re back home now. I want to see it packed.”

Said wide receiver Devaughn Vele: “It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be nice being back at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Swamp was cool, but it’s nice to be back at home.”

At halftime, the 2022 Utah Athletics Hall of Fame class will be recognized — featuring former Ute football players Eric Weddle and Chris Kemoeatu; basketball player Mitch Smith; swimmer Heidi Hasuknecht; gymnast Melissa Vituj; track and field athlete Carla Pittelkow; skier Christl Hager; and women’s basketball player Shona Thorburn. The 2022 national champion Utah ski team will also be honored.

Utes on the air

Southern Utah (1-0) at No. 13 Utah (0-1) 

Saturday, 11:30 a.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium 

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: ESPN 700