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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is returning to its Mountain West Conference roots Saturday as the team travels to take on San Diego State in a rare road nonconference game for the Utes.
The team will look to shake off a streak-ending loss to in-state rival BYU Saturday.
That streak is over and done with, and so is Utah's thoughts toward the early-season misstep.
All the team's focus, for the moment at least, is on escaping Los Angeles (the road game moved from San Diego to Carson as a stadium is being built for the Aztecs) with a win. The final game before the conference slate begins can serve as a reset to a season where Utah (1-1) was expected to compete for its third conference championship appearance in four years.
Utah will have to clean up several mistakes to combat an old Mountain West foe that will not be overwhelmed by the Utes' new conference and Power Five designation. After all, the Aztecs have more Pac-12 wins than the Utes this season following a 38-14 drubbing over Arizona in the Wildcats' home opener.
It took San Diego State (2-0) just the first two quarters of play to make it a 35-7 blowout, or as Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Aztecs' performance: "The game was over, essentially, at halftime.
"They handled Arizona with no problem at all. I mean, it was not even a contest, and so it was impressive to watch that tape and see how they operate," Whittingham said. "... We've got to rise up and play much better."
The Utes hope to avoid that same type of showing against an Aztecs team that ranks 15th in the country with an average of 258.5 rushing yards per game, or the eighth-best rush defense in the country by allowing opponents to only 48.5 yards per game, or even a scoring defense that has only allowed an average of 12 points per game — good for 18th best in the country.
By all accounts, Utah will be looking at itself in the mirror come Saturday (5 p.m. MT, CBS Sports Network) night when it kicks off its final nonconference game at Dignity Sports Health Park — the home to Major League Soccer's LA Galaxy that seats approximately 27,000 fans.
But San Diego State's early prolific offense against New Mexico State and Arizona will potentially be without some of its fire power.
"San Diego State backup quarterback Lucas Johnson is expected to start Saturday afternoon's game against Utah in place of injured starter Jordon Brookshire," The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Thursday.
Brookshire injured his foot in the game against Arizona and has only participated in "light activity" in practice and is listed as "doubtful" for Saturday.
Game 3 pic.twitter.com/GLPPsjswa3— UtesEquipment (@UtesEquipment) September 16, 2021
With or without the team's top play-caller under center, Utah knows it can't be caught flat footed for the second-straight week, and it needs to be able to get out of third-down situations, as was mentioned heavily by coaches and players following its first loss of the season.
"We weren't good enough and my job is to make sure we are good enough," Whittingham said. "We've got our work cut out for us this week. This San Diego State team is really good."
The one shining star of Utah's offense that has produced thus far this season has been dynamic running back Micah Bernard, who grew up approximately 15 minutes away from where the Utes play and put up 146 rushing yards and one touchdown Saturday. But for Bernard or any of the other backs to have success, a proficient passing game has to be established to ensure more opportunities for Bernard to work.
Fortunately for the Utes, the Aztecs rank 98th in passing defense and have allowed an average of 252.5 yards through the air — Utah has averaged a meager 204.5 yards so far this season. If Utah wanted to open up the passing game, Saturday may be the time to explore targeting its array of wide receivers ready to make plays and get points on the board.
But for any of that to happen, the offensive line and quarterback Charlie Brewer, in particular, have to bounce back from a lackluster Week 2 performance against BYU, where the team was overpowered and sped up to disrupt what was expected to be an experienced offense.
Utah scored on only three of the five times it got inside BYU's 40-yard line, and one of those was a made field goal, leaving the Utes with an average of 3.4 points per trip inside BYU's territory. It's something the Utes spent the early part of the week, specifically Monday, cleaning up and addressing.
"We got that addressed and we fixed that," Utes center Nick Ford said. "I think that was one of the biggest problems, just being on the same page.
"We understand that the only way to recover from this is to go take that anger and feeling out on another opponent and not feel sorry for yourself. San Diego State's a good team and if you feel sorry for yourself, they're going to take advantage of that and it's going to wind up being the same way," Ford added. "We can't go into San Diego State being upset about the previous week or whatever it is."
The road test won't get any easier for the Utes, especially when it's looking itself in the mirror, but it's an opportunity for a team to bounce back and showcase its ability to address adversity and move forward.
How to watch and listen to the game
Utah (1-1) at San Diego State (2-0)
Where: Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson, CA
When: 5 p.m. MT
TV: CBS Sports Network (Dave Ryan, Aaron Murray, Amanda Guerra)
Radio: ESPN 700 (Bill Riley, Scott Mitchell)
Sirius XM: 121 (Sirius), 197 (XM), 959 (Internet)
Series record: Utah leads, 17-12-1