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As Utes enter conference play, Pac-12 championship remains top focus

Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) runs to the end zone for a touchdown while being tackled by San Diego State safety Cedarious Barfield (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif.

Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) runs to the end zone for a touchdown while being tackled by San Diego State safety Cedarious Barfield (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. (Ashley Landis, Associated Press)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Never has an 0-0 record been more appealing to a team. For a Utah team ready to shake off a disappointing start to the season, entering conference play with a clean slate has never felt better.

There's no point to dwell on the past. What's done is done. The only value in looking back is to acknowledge the mistakes made and to have it serve as a reference point to how Utah (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) can get better.

"We're 0-0 in Pac-12 play, that's the mentality right now is we've got a fresh start," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The nonconference games went nothing like we expected or anticipated, and now we're on to conference play."

If there is one game to look back on, though, it's the San Diego State game. It's a microcosm to what receiver Britain Covey believes can be Utah's season — at least the trajectory and resilience of the team in the fourth quarter and overtime periods.

"I hope that that's kind of a metaphor for our season," Covey said. "I think that what I hope to see was last game being very similar to how our season goes: You start off pretty bad and then you finish strong. Obviously, we didn't end up winning the game, but I think it was great, especially for coach Whittingham.

"Coach Whittingham, he's been around so many teams that have been great, and he's been preaching to us our potential from Day 1, but we haven't quite seen it on the field," he added. "It's not until you see it that you can truly believe it. I think we all saw it in the fourth quarter, and now I think there's a lot more belief behind it. ... I just know that our team is in a much better headspace right now."

As Utah welcomes Washington State to Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday in a daytime homecoming matchup (12:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Networks), Utah hopes to use the game as a springboard of sorts to the rest of the season. It's the moment Utah puts it together and the team believes their goals are still obtainable.

That moment has potentially already happened following a player-only meeting Sunday called by the team captains. On the heels of Sunday's meeting, Cam Rising, the quarterback that gave the Utes a spark in the comeback loss, was named the team's starter Tuesday. The team already has a renewed optimism and willingness to go to battle with Rising with him leading the charge.

"Cam's a great guy, he's very vocal. He makes sure he lets his voice known and he always tries to get us in the right headspace," receiver Devaughn Vele said. "Even when Charlie (Brewer) was starting, he would always talk to us on the sideline and make sure everything's good. And that's something that we need, especially during these tough times.

"Not every team is going to be perfect, and everybody understands that's the game of football — nobody's perfect, no team is perfect. But it's finding those right guys that can fix those small little kinks that we have and capitalize on that, and then not focusing so much on the bad but improving on what we need to work on. Cam brings that a lot. He always brings a positive attitude every day. He's always the guy smiling, seeing you in a hallway saying 'what's up,' so he brings a lot to the table."

With Rising leading the charge, Utah believes it has a chance to showcase the offense it expected to have when the season started.

"If you kind of look at the fourth quarter of the last game, I think that's the offense that we have a good shot of being — playing fast, playing aggressively, wearing the other team down, and that's, I think, going to be our offensive identity," tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham said. "We're not going to change as far as, you know, our basic philosophy and everything that we do. We've just got to put more points on the board, and that's the focus going forward."

The optimism and hope is real that Saturday will be a different story. But more importantly, it's the start to Utah's chance to win a third South division title in four years and finally win the Pac-12 championship. And while back-to-back losses have a way of chipping away at the preseason expectations, Utah players believe their potential has yet to be reached.

"As tough as these two losses were, it's not taking away from our goal," Vele said. "That's what we always talked about since winter conditioning, working up to spring ball and then summer camp, fall camp and even to now, it's getting that Pac-12 championship. Did we want those wins? Absolutely, nobody wants to lose. I mean, the Pac-12 championship is still what we're focused on, and that's our goal.

"The fact that we're 0-0, that still gives us hope."

Covey said the fight and the resilience shown in the San Diego State game, mixed with the player-only meeting, have the team in a good spot to bounce back "because a lot of people have written us off." They're "blocking out all the noise," the distractions and the expectations, and just going to work to beat a Washington State team that is equally trying to find its footing after a poor start to the season.

"We're going into something 0-0 in Pac-12 play, and so it's exciting," Covey said. "It's us against the world."

"The message is: everything is focused on Washington State right now," Freddie Whittingham added. "Opening up Pac-12 play, we are 0-0 in conference play, and our goal is to win the Pac-12 South. That's what it's been all about. Just getting it done this weekend against Washington State."

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