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After finishing with three straight wins, Utah turns attention to 2021 season

Utah’s next game will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Weber State on Sept. 2, 2021.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks around his players as they begin their warmups as Utah and Oregon State prepare to play a college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks around his players as they begin their warmups as Utah and Oregon State prepare to play a college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Not long after Utah completed its remarkable 45-28 comeback against Washington State last Saturday in the season-finale at Rice-Eccles Stadium, coach Kyle Whittingham’s thoughts turned, of course, to next season.

Asked how the momentum from outscoring the Cougars 38-0 in the second half could carry over into the 2021 campaign, Whittingham wasn’t sure.

“It’s better than losing it. I don’t know how long that momentum lasts. It gives you a good feeling about the season,” he said. “It leaves a better taste in your mouth than the alternative.”

The Utes (3-2) ended the year with three consecutive victories.

“When you look at the final three games, I’m proud of these guys getting it turned around. We had two tough games right out of the gate — the two champions, the North champ Washington and the South champ USC,” Whittingham said. “We took a step forward in each game. That will give us good momentum heading into the offseason. We’ll try to build on it. That’s the next challenge.”

For freshman running back Ty Jordan, who rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State, winning the final three games was a gratifying accomplishment, especially after all he and his team went through the past several months. Among other issues, games against Arizona and UCLA were canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.

“Man, it’s amazing. Before fall camp started, it was like you might play or you might not play,” Jordan said. “We didn’t know, then we missed our first two games. We fought to get better from the two games we lost and we got better. It shows the fight we have.”

This is first time the Utes won’t go to a bowl game since 2013. Whittingham left it up to the players when it came to the postseason. The players opted not to participate in a bowl game after a long, taxing season.

“It was very difficult,” Jordan said of the team’s decision not to play in a bowl game. “It had to do with the crazy year we’ve had and not wanting to risk injuries with a bowl game. But we have a young team and the players are ready for the next season.”

Utah’s next game will be at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Weber State on Sept. 2, 2021.

In the short term, Whittingham said there’s a team meeting on Zoom Tuesday night as players travel home for the holidays “and finally get a chance to be back with their families and get a break.”

With players’ eligibility being paused this season, Whittingham is trying to figure out which seniors will return or move on.

“We have 14 seniors who all have the option to come back and be super seniors, I guess you call them,” he said. “That’s going to take place and we’ll try to get things hashed out and decide who’s going to be with us and who’s not. But we’re excited about this team that’s coming back. When you add this class we just signed a few days ago with what we’ve got, we’re pretty optimistic about the future.”

One of the biggest reasons to be optimistic about the future is Jordan, who became the first Ute to score three touchdowns in a game since Zack Moss in 2018. Jordan finished the season with three straight game rushing for more than 100 yards.

“It means a lot to be mentioned in the same breath with Zack Moss,” Jordan said. “I have some big shoes to feel and I’m not there yet. But I’m just trying to work hard, trying to make my mom proud.”

Whittingham, meanwhile, is proud of his young defense and what it accomplished this season.

“They needed to go through that. I’m so proud of this team, especially all the new guys on defense,” he said. “We were second in the league in defense entering this game. If you would have told me that at the end of the season we’d be No. 2 in defense, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

Yeah, it was a crazy season. Whittingham, like everybody else, is hoping for a return to normalcy heading into the 2021 campaign.