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#TeamFun: Utes 'swagger' leading to more confidence, success in games

The Utah Utes take the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.

The Utah Utes take the field in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Game. Set. Match. Checkmate.

Those were the words of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham on the sideline after his team erased a 21-7 halftime deficit and scored 28 unanswered points in a win over Arizona State to squarely position the Utes in first place in the South division of the Pac-12.

The key win in the division title race, matched with Utah's win over USC the week before, now has Utah positioned for better opportunities should the program keep up its momentum. On Tuesday, Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group had the Utes as the favorite to make the Rose Bowl this year in his latest bowl projections.

A lot has changed in a couple weeks.

After back-to-back losses in out-of-conference play, where Utah looked anything but the type of team expected in the preseason, and an unspeakable tragedy striking the program again with the death of another teammate, the Utes are back to winning and having fun along the way.

The team, which recently celebrated the win over the Sun Devils by hoisting Whittingham above the players in the locker room in what appeared to be an attempt at crowd surfing, has a renewed positivity around the program. Winning cures a lot in sports, but there's genuine joy emanating from the team after a 3-0 start to conference play.

Whittingham said "it doesn't happen often" that he celebrates the way he did with his team Saturday, but "the moment" overtook him and the players.

"You're in the moment, you're so excited for them," he said.

After losing Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, many on the team said it gave them a renewed outlook on life — a new purpose. It's about being as connected as possible as a team.

Everyone in the locker room is playing for each other, they're playing for Jordan and Lowe, and they're playing for pride — the pride that comes with knowing the team needed to improve to meet the preseason expectations they all had.

It was Rose Bowl or bust for the Utes.

The expectation was not an empty platitude or unrealistic expectation; it was a realistic goal with a roster that could obtain the program's first-ever Pac-12 championship. After three straight wins, the joy and excitement is a realization of the team back on that trajectory.

"I think it's just about finally seeing everything come to fruition," receiver Britain Covey said. "It's equally as frustrating for us as it probably is for anyone that hears about this player's doing well during fall camp; oh, this team could be really good; we've got these weapons. And then to have it not show itself in the first couple games, it's frustrating. So finally, when it comes to fruition, it's that idea of, okay, this wasn't just a fluke.

"I think that that's kind of what it feels like for the guys. It's like seeing it in person and happen under the lights just confirms everything that we thought, and that's what gets you going."

But it's more than just a realization that Utah can be good this season. To Whittingham, it's seeing players that are engaged and loving the game.

"Every team has its own personality and its own chemistry, I guess you could say, and this team is really fun to be around," Whittingham said. "There's a lot of great leaders — the leadership has been outstanding from the onset. But the personality of this team is just more — I don't want to say jovial — they're having a lot of fun this year. We have a lot of guys that love football, and it shows, and that's what you want; you want guys that love football, and that's what has been exuded during the course of the season."

"I love enthusiam and guys that are really excited to play and have a passion for what they're doing."

None more than quarterback Cam Rising, who has been a large contributing factor in Utah's success and upbeat morale. Not only has he led a renewed offensive performance, his smile and personality has rubbed off on the team, Covey said.

"Cam has some swagger to him. I don't think you'll ever catch Cam not smiling," Covey said. "I don't know if you remember his season-ending injury last year, literally he was on the sidelines smiling two seconds after — that's just who he is. He's always been that guy through the highs and lows that's there to encourage you, and you'll go to war for someone like that. You'll run through a brick wall for someone who is constantly there for you, and I think that's what it is about Cam.

"He's been there for us through the highs and lows. And then we just trust him in this offense. I think that he's had the advantage of being in this system for about three years now and understanding all of the ins and outs, because it's a pretty complex system, and I think that gives the players and the coaches a little bit of leeway to just let it roll."

For offensive lineman Braeden Daniels, who has helped solidify a once porous offensive line since he shifted to right tackle, Rising is someone that is easy to play for. Even speaking about Rising brought a big smile to Daniels' face.

"Wherever he came in at San Diego State, it was just a lot of fun blocking for him," Daniels said. "Just going out there and watching him have his own success and watching him make plays, it's just exciting for me to see.

"You just want to see him succeed just as bad as you want to succeed, and when I feel like you have a roomful of people that want that, it's just something special."

But the job isn't finished for the Utes, who appear as the most complete team in the Pac-12 at the moment. The fun surrounding the team is a welcomed addition for all the players involved, but Utah is still not complete.

Covey said Utah needs to play with more "swagger" from the onset and bury opponents earlier in the game instead of second-half heroics.

"I think it's all about playing with swagger," Covey said. "I think that good coaches, especially, know how to just almost let your guys go out there and play with what makes you special.

"Having that swagger, I think that we need to come out with that a little bit more early in the game. It's a personality type of thing. I think that you have guys that bring it as well. You know guys that are vocal bring it. I think we need it to start earlier though."

So while Utah played checkmate to Arizona State on Saturday, there's still a long ways to go before Utah is crowned champion. That all starts with Oregon State on Saturday (5:30 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Networks).

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