SALT LAKE CITY — While everything may be bigger in Texas, the glitz and glamour of life is at its highest in Los Angeles.
The L.A. skyline is an icon to fame and “making it” — a spotlight to popularity and being larger than life. It’s also the setting for what could be the University of Utah’s primetime opportunity to prove its No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll — an opportunity to play big-time football with the nation watching.
Friday night lights. The L.A. Coliseum.
The Coliseum needs no introduction and is a venue where Utah has suffered the pains of defeat for more than a century (although it’s really only been eight games in that 100-year span, and four in the last decade). Even recently, though, Utah has been close to beating the Trojans on the road but have never been able to get over the figurative hump.
A missed field goal; a blowout loss; a missed receiver in the end zone late in the game — the heartbreak has been common.
But for Friday night’s matchup, the spotlight is all on Utah and whether or not it can take care of business in a hostile environment, even one as storied as the Coliseum.
“It matters a great deal,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said, speaking about his team needing to show up well with the nation watching. “We're under the spotlight this Friday. And just like our own team, when we play Saturday games we're in the hotel Friday night watching the game that's on — the whole country's going to be watching.
“It's important you play well. Your brand is out there and getting exposure, so that's a positive. But you've gotta play well, which typically we've had some pretty good showings in those situations.”
In seasons past, Utah did whatever it could to acclimate its players to the environment of the Coliseum and the “Spirit of Troy” fight song being played on repeat by the Trojans band (if you listen quietly now you can still hear it in some small corner of your brain). Whittingham would blast the song on repeat throughout practice in the week leading up to the big Trojans game.
“I forgot,” Whittingham said when asked about the lack of the Trojans fight song blaring throughout practice this week.
It’s just another game week, even if it’s in a storied venue against a blue-blood program. Utah is the top dog and USC is looking up to them as the underdog team hoping to spoil the fun.
“That stadium just has a lot of history behind it. But that's really all it is to us,” backup quarterback Jason Shelley said. “It's a football team that we think that we can play a good game against. And we're going to go out there and try to get our dub.”
“These guys are focused; It's a very mature group, and so I think they handle their business well, and they know what's going on,” Whittingam said of his team and how it's preparing for Friday. “They're very savvy group as well.”
The gimmicks, the manufactured sound, the talk about “slaying a giant” are not applicable in this game. Utah is the perceived favorite, and the Vegas favorite, to win the game and take its first step at repeating as the South Division champs; it’s about Utah taking care of its business and escaping the Coliseum with its first win since joining the Pac-12 (and first in a century if that’s a motivating factor).
“I guess everyone's entitled to a bad decade or bad century,” Whittingham quipped Monday. “So this game, fortunately, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the past hundred plus years. It's its own entity, it's a new challenge. History hasn't been good to us in that place, but we don't feel it has any bearing on this year.”
If Utah plays its cards right, it could set itself up for another spotlight opportunity with ESPN College GameDay reportedly being interested in Salt Lake City as its next host site on Sept. 28. And why not with a Top 10 team welcoming another ranked Pac-12 opponent, Washington State, to town.
But in the words of Whittingham: “We’re only focused on the opponent in front of us.”
Even as the perceived favorite on paper, Utah has its work cut out Friday night. And until the Utes can claim a win in the Coliseum, it’s never a guarantee.
Utah opens up conference play Friday at the Coliseum at 7 p.m. MDT. The game will be broadcast on FS1.