Sports / U of U / 
Utah Utes running back Jordan Wilmore (5) is tackled for a loss of yardage during the game against the USC Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

'We want to win now': Utah finds positives despite season-opening loss

By Josh Furlong, KSL.com | Posted - Nov. 23, 2020 at 11:29 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The 2020 season was always going to have an asterisk next to it.

Not because the season wouldn't count, or that it didn't mean anything in the long-term scheme of college football; it was more that a global pandemic has made it nearly impossible to make the sport competitively balanced across the country.

As many are aware, Utah was the last Power Five program in the country to start its season — two games behind its conference's start that was already two weeks behind the Big Ten to resume play. In short, Utah will have no more than five regular-season games to round out its schedule, but even its next matchup — a game that was moved to Sunday — is in question, and more will likely be questionable as the season progresses.

So while the football played on the field will be inherently the same, the overall structure and atmosphere will be and has been different.

Utah found out Saturday that though the sport remains intact, it's a whole new ball game in 2020 — especially when the team coming into Rice-Eccles Stadium already had two games under its belt. But despite the unusual start, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham isn't punting on the season or throwing in the white towel after one game.

"This is not a season where we're just working on trying to get guys better for the future — we want to win now," Whittingham said Saturday night after a 33-17 loss to USC. "We're competing now, and we want to win now. Realistically, it's probably going to take some time to get these guys all up to speed. We knew that going into the season — it was no surprise.

"We lost a heck of a defensive unit — nine guys off that defense, they're all in the National Football League and that tells you how good that crew was. And we're starting over, with the exception of a few guys. And the guys that got their opportunity tonight, like I said, did some good things and made some mistakes. We knew that was going to happen. But there was a lot of positive we can build on the defensive side of the ball."

The positive is Utah's young roster is getting immediate playing experience, even if just for a few games. The 2020 season, at least for Utah, can be viewed as somewhat of an exhibition season — even if Whittingham wants to win now.

Prior to the season's start, Whittingham said the team would feature several freshmen and sophomores in many key positions. On Saturday, Utah played six freshmen and two sophomores in starting positions, and a combined 33 underclassmen in the duration of the game. Couple that with it being the first game of the season against a formidable opponent in South Division favorite USC, and the learning curve is sharp.

Even with a loss, Utah managed to come away with some positives, particularly on defense, and showcased up-and-coming talent.

"Disappointing game. There was a lot of positives in it, though," Whittingham said. "I thought our defense played really scrappy, I guess for lack of a better word. Run defense appeared to be really solid. ... Gave some things up in the pass game, but really had some pretty good performances by a lot of guys that hadn't played much football for us, if any."

"Young, old — doesn't matter," he added. "Nobody cares if you're young or old or inexperienced or experienced; you've got to perform. And so we've got to fix some issues that we got."

Starters:

  • Jaren Kump (Fr.)
  • Sataoa Laumea (Rs-Fr.)
  • Cameron Rising (So.)
  • Keaton Bills (Rs-Fr.)
  • Nate Ritchie (Fr.)
  • Sione Fotu (Fr.)
  • JT Broughton (So.)
  • Clark Phillips (Fr.)

Other contributors:

Kamo'i Latu (Fr.), Malone Mataele (So.), Zemaiah Vaughn (Fr.), Devaughn Vele (Rs-Fr.), Ty Jordan (Fr.), Faybian Marks (Fr.), Jake Biggs (Fr.), Aaron Lowe (So.), Jordan Noyes (Fr.), Micah Bernard (Rs-Fr.), Ben Lennon (So.), Xavier Carlton (Fr.), Andrew Mata'afa (So.), Jordan Wilmore (So.), Hayden Furey (So.), Caine Savage (Fr.), Paul Maile (So.), Simi Moala (So.), Braeden Daniels (So.), Van Fillinger (Fr.), Cameron Gardner (So.), Dominique Thompson (So.), Thomas Yassmin (So.), Jadon Redding (So.), Tennessee Pututau (Fr.)

That young talent on the defensive side held USC to 264 yards passing and under 100 yards rushing — both below USC's season average coming into the game. So while there was a lot to learn from the game as a whole unit, the future remains bright.

"Not the result we were expecting at all, but the beautiful thing about it is it's football, and we've got another opportunity next week, and we've got Monday to prepare," junior linebacker Devin Lloyd said. "You just put this in the past and I'm looking forward."

"As a defense, I feel like we played really well," junior linebacker Nephi Sewell, who had a scoop-and-score touchdown and an interception, said Saturday night. "There were obviously some mental mistakes — we've just got to clean those up. Personally, I feel like it would have been a way closer game."

Offensively, while not as easy to highlight the positives due to five turnovers and its struggle to advance the ball, Utah showcased some up-and-coming talent on the offensive line and at running back. The line got pushed around early on but settled in later in the game — though it was still not enough to stop a more physical USC defensive front.

But Ty Jordan and Jordan Wilmore, two running backs vying for a starting role, showed Utah has some talent ready to emerge in the offensive attack.

"Positives and whatnot, we didn't win the game, and that's all that matters, really, at the end of the day," senior quarterback Jake Bentley said. "We'll look at the film and definitely learn from it, but we've got to find a way to win that game."

Josh Furlong

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