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Utes needed a 'spark,' and it got one in a new QB despite loss

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) runs the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) runs the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (Ashley Landis, Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

CARSON, Calif. — There was no reason to believe Utah would stave a comeback.

San Diego State scored two quick touchdowns — an 82-yard drive in just over three minutes followed by a touchdown one play after picking off Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer deep in Utah's territory — to open up play in the second half.

At that point, facing a 24-10 deficit, two touchdowns seemed insurmountable for the Utes, particularly given that the offense managed only 89 total yards in the first half. It was like watching in-state rival BYU push Utah around all over again, but this time worse.

Brewer was forced to run for his life as the defense broke through with relative ease, and the run game had only 19 yards to its credit. In short, nothing was working for the Utes.

But with 5:24 left in the third quarter, Utah decided to make a change.

"I kind of got told with about 45 seconds on the TV timeout that I was going in and just threw a few balls and went out," sophomore Cameron Rising said of being told he'd replace Brewer in the lineup.

His first two passes of the game were nothing special — a 5-yard completion to Solomon Enis, followed by a low pass to Enis that he couldn't corral. Really, it was more of the same showing from an offense that didn't produce a touchdown before Rising entered the game.

His next series wasn't any better. He had a couple overthrown passes to receivers, as if he was trying too hard to will Utah to a win. But regardless of the actual performance on the field, there was a noticeable difference in how Utah's offense responded to one of its team captains under center.

"Cam came in and gave us that spark with his legs as well as with his arm — he ran for some big gains," Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He came in off the bench and his first few passes might have been a little bit errant, but he settled in and did a great job once he got into a rhythm — and he got into a rhythm very quickly."

With 6:33 left to play in the game, Utah's offense finally responded.

Rising picked apart the defense, stiff-armed a few blitzing defenders and marched Utah down the field for its first offensive touchdown of the game — a 2-yard catch by Britain Covey in the end zone. Utah had some life; and suddenly a game that felt over early in the second half became something of a comeback.

Utah's defense, which held San Diego State in check for much of the night, did its job and got Utah the ball back with just 2:36 left in regulation down 24-16.

Embracing the Ted Lasso mantra, Utah's offense suddenly believed.

Again, Rising marched down the field with relative ease — this time a 13-play, 74-yard drive — and found Theo Howard open in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown pass. Rising then completed a 2-point conversion to Enis to send the game into overtime.

The final result didn't end up in Utah's favor after three overtime periods, but the Rising era has begun.

Whittingham was hesitant to name Rising the starter after a "furious comeback," but all signs lead to the sophomore taking snaps when Utah welcomes Washington State (12:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network) to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the Pac-12 opener Saturday.

"We'll evaluate that tomorrow in the film session. We'll most likely have a starter on Monday," Whittingham said. "I don't want to go the whole week debating on who's going to be the starter, so we'll evaluate the film, take a good hard look at both of their performances and make a decision on who we're gonna go with."

But it doesn't take a trained eye to know that Utah has its new quarterback. Anything different will likely result in a similar offensive performance before Rising took over.

And while Brewer has the natural talent to sling the ball and find receivers, it's more about the leadership and the command of the offense that Rising has that could give him the nod over the veteran QB. The offense responded to Rising in a way that showed he commanded the offense — he made them better the longer he stayed in the game.

"I hope they were fired up," Rising said. "I kind of laid into them a little bit once I got into that huddle. But we certainly got things going a little bit more and it started to flow a little bit better."

That leadership and the response of his teammates could be key to Utah moving on to its next starter.

"The great ones, in any sport, any team sport, make their teammates around them better, and that's something that is definitely in the equation," Whittingham said. "We'll watch the film and see what kind of reaction we're getting from everybody on the offense. And I know it was very positive because of the results, and the results were positive, but that's certainly something to consider.

"It's not the only thing, it may not be the absolute most important thing, but it is very important."

And with Rising under center, Utah has someone that's leading the charge.

"Every time I step out on that field I play for them," Rising said. "I want to give my all, everything that I have any time we're really on the field together. So it made it easy having all those guys out there with me."

It made it easy for Utah to name its next starting quarterback, too, it's just a formality moving forward.

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