Due to the global pandemic, it’s been 325 days since Utah’s last football game.
In recent weeks, the Utes have experienced two false starts — two games canceled because of COVID-19 issues. There are only four scheduled games remaining and next week’s contest at Arizona State could be in jeopardy after an outbreak in the Sun Devils’ program.
If everything goes smoothly, Utah will finally take the field Saturday (8:30 p.m., MST, ESPN) against No. 20 USC in the Utes’ 2020 season opener.
What does coach Kyle Whittingham hope to get out of this unique, strange, truncated campaign?
“Well we hope to play, first of all. I think we are the only Power Five team that hasn’t played yet, so first and foremost we just want to get on the field,” the coach said earlier this week. “We want to see what we’ve got with these new players and obviously be competitive. We have some good things going for us on offense with very few new players and it being a veteran group. We expect to be productive on offense.
“We are always looking to win the (Pac-12) South and get to the championship game and then win that. So, that is our objective and we will see what happens. We have to start playing at some point and hopefully this is the week that we’re able to do that.” — Kyle Whittingham
“The key is also how quickly this defense can come around,” he continued. “We are always looking to win the (Pac-12) South and get to the championship game and then win that. So, that is our objective and we will see what happens. We have to start playing at some point and hopefully this is the week that we’re able to do that.”
Throughout the week, signs have been trending in a positive direction for the game to be played.
With health issues affecting Utah’s program, there have been questions about which players would be available. Last week, Whittingham said his team might have to rely on scout team players and walk-ons to play key roles. Whittingham said this week “that is becoming less and less the case.”
“We’re getting more back, both out of quarantine and also the active cases have run their course for the most part,” he said. “We still have a few that aren’t involved football-wise yet but they’re due to come out in the next few days. We’re in a much better spot right now than we were the last two weeks.
“We tried to do everything in our power the last couple of weeks to play but between the 53 available scholarship players and/or a position group being decimated, that knocked us out of competition.”
There is plenty of other intrigue entering Saturday’s game as well. Whittingham hasn’t publicly announced who will be the starting quarterback after a battle between South Carolina grad transfer Jake Bentley, Texas transfer Cam Rising and senior Drew Lisk.
On defense, the Utes are trying to replace nine starters from last year’s squad that won the Pac-12 South championship.
“We have definitely seen growth, but we have also seen guys miss a bunch of practice because of the circumstances. It has been a little bit of a double-edged sword where guys are getting better, but then guys that need reps are unavailable for practice,” Whittingham said of the young secondary. “We feel that we have made progress, but we still don’t know what we have. We haven’t lined up against anybody yet. As far as their techniques, their skill and them grasping the schemes, we are getting better on a daily basis.”
Wide receiver Solomon Enis said it’s been important to stay focused mentally during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“That is all you can do. You can’t stress about what you can’t control. What you can control is your effort and what you put into practice every day. It is about showing up,” he said. “At the end of the day, it hurts, especially the day before the game and it gets canceled, but you come into the next week and you work the same way you did before, and you hope it works out the rest of the week.”
“The biggest thing is just emphasizing that we still have a game to play. That is our mentality unless they tell us otherwise,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “We still have a game to prepare for against a really good opponent in USC. It is just getting the guys to understand that there can’t be any fear or any doubt that we aren’t going to play. Until that happens, it should be our mentality to come out and dominate the next game.”
Whittingham praised his team’s consistency and positive attitude during these difficult times.
“They’ve been very resilient and shown a great deal of resolve when they’ve come back. We’re in a good place right now mentally,” he said. “We still don’t know a lot about our football team because we haven’t had a chance to play yet. But as far as their work ethic, their focus, their attention to detail, it’s all been very good.”