SALT LAKE CITY – Nick Rolovich never coached a football game against the University of Utah in his 12 years at Nevada and Hawaii, but by the time he arrived at the podium to meet with reporters Monday afternoon – some 24 hours after the Pac-12 announced its Week 7 pairings – the Washington State coach seemed to know what the Utes were all about.
Give credit to Rolovich for doing some quick homework, but anyone who’s spent time monitoring Mountain West or Pac-12 football since 2005 could probably give you a basic lowdown on what makes Kyle Whittingham’s program unique.
That’s why, when Rolovich began describing the Utes earlier this week, the adjectives he used resembled many of those Mike Leach often turned to over the years when previewing a game between WSU and Utah. In a year when almost everything else is different, Utah’s dedication to tough, rugged, bone-crushing football almost provides a refreshing sense of normalcy.
“Any team that’s coached by Kyle Whittingham is going to be a tough, physical, passionate, love playing football team,” Rolovich said. “There’s a physicality that his brand has been developed for a long time up there. You’re probably going to be sore the next day. Our challenge is to make sure they’re sore, too.”
For the second time this season, the Cougars (1-2) will be playing a football game following a two-week layoff when they visit the Utes (2-2) for a 10:30 a.m. kickoff at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The hosts are favored by 9½ points in a game that will air on FS1.
The winner of the game would be eligible for postseason play, although WSU has already assured there won’t be a fifth game, even if the Cougars can snare a road win to finish .500 on the season. Earlier this week, Rolovich confirmed WSU would bypass a bowl selection if the Cougars were invited, which naturally raises concerns about the team’s motivation entering a chilly morning game in Salt Lake City that some might cast off as a meaningless exhibition.
Utah, which would be bowl-eligible with a win, has also decided it won’t be playing in the postseason regardless of what happens.
Even if the Cougars are eager to get through this shortened season so they can move on to the next one, COVID-19 robbed them of three games within the past four weeks, and their last showing in a competitive football setting – a 38-13 loss at USC on Dec. 6 – still leaves a bitter taste.
“I think they just want to play. If we’re playing on hot coals, I think all we want to do is play,” Rolovich said. “… We could play in a junkyard. I just can’t tell you what an honor it is to be surrounded by this team and what their mindset has been and what it is continued to grow to, especially after Cal and going to this game. I don’t think if it’s snow, I don’t think if it’s rain, I don’t think if it’s wind. I don’t care if it’s all of that and we get slapped around and punched in the face. This team just wants to go play and I can ride with that.”
After COVID-19 wiped out Utah’s first two games, the Utes dropped consecutive contests to USC and Washington before rebounding to beat Oregon State and Colorado the past two weeks. Utah’s defense may not be as daunting as it was in 2019, with three defensive linemen and three defensive backs having been drafted to the NFL, but the front seven is still formidable. This year, Whittingham’s headliners on defense are two linebackers: Devin Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist who averages better than nine sacks per game, and Nephi Sewell, whose three forced turnovers are second in the conference behind USC’s Talanoa Hufanga.
“I know we always like going up against good defensive lines,” WSU left tackle Liam Ryan said. “I know they’re stout, they’ve always got some big tough guys. So it’s going to be a battle in the trenches. … I think you win and lose in the trenches. So, games are basically decided whether the offensive line and defensive line on one team usually does really good. We don’t get all the glory and stuff like that … but I think our position is a selfless position and games are basically won by offensive lines and defensive lines.
“They do have some stout guys who are just as tall as us on the defensive line. So you don’t see that as often.”
WSU’s defense no longer has to game plan for Utah tailback Zack Moss, who’s rushed for 335 yards and three touchdowns in the NFL this season, but it doesn’t mean they can ignore the Utes’ run game. Freshman Ty Jordan has been the conference’s most productive rusher the past two weeks, with 44 carries for 314 yards and three touchdowns against OSU and Colorado.
Whittingham’s receivers haven’t been as productive as Rolovich’s, but they’re an intriguing blend of size, speed and skill. Some would peg Brant Kuithe as the conference’s best tight end and the junior leads Utah with 19 receptions for 175 yards. Receiver Bryan Thompson has been the most explosive after the catch, hauling in seven passes for 155 yards and one touchdown, and crafty junior Britain Covey, a member of Utah’s football program since 2015, has caught 13 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. The skill players are almost enough to mask the play of quarterback Jake Bentley, a South Carolina transfer who’s thrown as many touchdowns (five) as he has interceptions in four games.
“Always respect your opponent, but come prepared to play,” cornerback Daniel Isom said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody or worry about anybody specific. Just going to play our game plan.”
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