When Utah coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media last Tuesday morning, it was clear there was an air of uncertainty about the upcoming weekend.
The Utes were preparing to travel to Arizona State, an opponent that they had been scheduled to play on Sunday. But Whittingham was well-aware of the COVID-19 issues in Tempe and that the Sun Devils might not be able to play at all.
“It’s a weird year, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a mental challenge, especially for coaches when you’re so regimented and you have your routine and your process and the way your schedule is in flux almost all the time is challenging. But the whole country is going through it. It’s not unique to us, obviously.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
During practice, the coach said, the focus was on ASU but he was paying attention to the possibility of traveling to Washington instead.
Oh, and by the way, Whittingham had just announced that starting quarterback Cam Rising was undergoing season-ending surgery and would be replaced by South Carolina grad transfer Jake Bentley.
By that night, the Pac-12 announced Utah’s game at Arizona State was canceled. Later came the news that the Utes would be going to Seattle to take on the Huskies.
Not only that, on Wednesday, kickoff time was moved from 8:30 p.m., MST to 5:30 p.m. MST.
Saturday night, Utah built a 21-0 halftime advantage only to watch that lead gradually dwindle as the second half unfolded. Washington ended up scoring the game-winning touchdown, and seizing its first lead of the night, with 36 seconds remaining. The Huskies won, 24-21.
It marked the latest chapter in a bizarre 2020 football season for the Utes.
Before that, there were plenty of crazy moments — including having the Arizona and UCLA games canceled the day before kickoff.
The Utes (0-2) were the final FBS program to play a game this season when they hosted USC on Nov. 21 — a 33-17 loss on Whittingham’s 61st birthday.
While Whittingham is not one to make any excuses, he acknowledged Saturday night that this season has taken a toll.
“It’s a weird year, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a mental challenge, especially for coaches when you’re so regimented and you have your routine and your process. The way your schedule is in flux almost all the time is challenging. But the whole country is going through it. It’s not unique to us, obviously.”
But the past seven days posed even more challenges for the Utes.
“It was a fairly turbulent week when we found out Tuesday night that we had changed opponents. We had, fortunately, Wednesday and Thursday to practice for what the new opponent like (Washington) had for us,” Whittingham said. “Coaches are built a certain way and that way is not to just continually change day to day or even hour to hour, but you have to. You have no choice because it’s the situation you’re in. You have to figure it out and figure out the best way to make the best of a bad situation.”
There was a bad situation at Husky Stadium, where Utah was outscored 24-0 in the third and fourth quarters.
That second-half meltdown featured plenty of mistakes and self-inflicted wounds on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Just two games into the season, some troubling patterns have emerged. The Utes have given up a total of nine turnovers and they have been shutout in the second half, outscored by a combined total of 33-0.
Whittingham’s mentality, as always, is to put in the work and improve.
“We have some good players in the program. We’ve just got to put it all together. We’ve got to come back to work on Monday and be ready to show resolve and be able to bounce back and not feel sorry for ourselves,” he said. “I think this can be a good football team at some point. We’ve got to keep coaching them as best we can. We’ve got to coach them better. It was a team loss. There was no one position unit or one player that was the reason for the loss. It starts with the coaching staff. We’ve got to coach them better.”
Utah is scheduled to entertain Oregon State Saturday. The Beavers upset nationally-ranked Oregon last Friday night with a dramatic 41-38 victory. Backup quarterback Chance Nolan replaced injured starter Tristan Gebbia and scored on a 1-yard run with 33 seconds remaining.
Whittingham is hoping his team can show up in both the first and second halves and play a complete game this weekend.
“We weren’t able to make any plays in the second half like we were making in the first half,” he said. “The encouraging thing is, that’s who we can be in the first half. That’s the football team that we’re capable of being.”