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Utah Midseason Awards: Utes hitting their stride a third of the way through Pac-12 play

Utah Utes and Arizona State Sun Devils line up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.

Utah Utes and Arizona State Sun Devils line up in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — At the midpoint in Utah's season, there's still much to be learned about the Utes and who they are on the field.

The season started out in a sputter as the offense went through an identity crisis of sorts and the team dropped back-to-back contests on the road against BYU and San Diego State.

But with a change at quarterback and the team solidifying the offensive line with Braeden Daniels moving from left guard to right tackle, Utah is the only remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12.

Utah's found its starting quarterback and now has a better idea of its pecking order in a loaded running back room that has a new player lead the room every week. The team believes it has finally reached the type of play it expected at the beginning of the season, and Whittingham believes the team is "just starting to hit our stride."

"The last two or three games we've started to work well, for sure the last two we started to figure out who we are," Whittingham said.

"Overall, we're trending in the right direction, I think, as a football team."

And while Utah has figured out more about itself, there's still another half season to play. But for the first half — the roller coaster stage — of play, here's a look at some of the standouts of the first six games.

Midseason Player of the Year: Cam Rising, QB; Devin Lloyd, LB

It's hard to pick just one player when two players — one on offense and defense — stand out for their role this season.

Rising, with his ever-present smile, is largely responsible for turning around Utah's opportunities this season, most notably on offense. The sophomore quarterback who won the starting job in the fourth quarter of the San Diego State game has injected fun back into the program. And he's doing it while leading his team to three straight wins over conference opponents, and in convincing fashion.

Rising's play on the field has put Utah in strong contention for a potential Rose Bowl appearance following a potential division title and first conference championship. There's still a long season ahead, but the program is Rising due to his play. While there have been several players on offense to highlight this season, none compares to the one everyone calls #thiccboi7.

The Ventura, California, native is also the first-ever quarterback for the Utes to be named to back-to-back Offensive Player of the Week honors by the Pac-12.

On defense, Lloyd has lived up to his billing as an explosive linebacker who impacts the game no matter where he's at on the field. There's no doubt the NFL is in Lloyd's future with several scouts watching him play each week, but it's what he consistently does on the field that matters most.

The junior linebacker averages 10.2 tackles per game, good for sixth in the country, and has five sacks and two interceptions this season. He's already been placed on five Midseason All-America First Team lists and was recently named the Rose Bowl Game Pac-12 Player of the Week, among several other honors.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) runs against Southern California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) runs against Southern California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo)

Best win: Utah vs. No. 18 Arizona State

It would be easy to say that Utah's first-ever win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum should be the best win of the season, especially with it being the first game played since the tragic death of defensive back Aaron Lowe. And while it's noteworthy in its own right, Utah's win over then-No. 18 Arizona State is definitively the best win of the season thus far.

With the dominant win over USC as added importance, Utah held the Sun Devils scoreless in the second half and scored more points in two quarters than Arizona State has allowed in a single game this season — BYU's 27 points was previously the most allowed this season — in a vital division win. The win put the Utes in sole position of first place in the South division and essentially a two-game buffer in the division race.

Arizona State is a good team and, until its loss to Utah, was playing the best football in the Pac-12. But one game flipped the table in the conference as Utah became the hunted and not the hunter, though receiver Britain Covey said the team still sees themselves as the "hunters" this season and approach each game with that mentality.

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) sacks Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21.
Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) sacks Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. Utah won 35-21. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Breakout Player of the Year: Clark Phillips III, CB

There's several worthy candidates here, but COVID-freshman Clark Phillips III has put together a solid six-game performance as Utah's next best cornerback to come through Utah. Phillips was already the highest-ever rated recruit to commit to the Utes, but his performance on the field has been nothing but important for Utah's defense.

As valuable as Lloyd is to Utah's defense, Phillips is equally important to Utah's success this season. The freshman is driven and sees a lot more in his game he needs to work on, but the coaching staffs trust him like he's a veteran. Phillips has gone toe-to-toe with arguably the best receiver in the country in USC's Drake London and limited his touches in the second half.

Phillips has also been left on an island, so to speak, and has been trusted by defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and the coaching staff to play an aggressive man coverage against a teams' best receiver. And even though he's an underclassmen, Phillips is a key cog to Utah's defensive success.

The future is bright for Phillips.

Midseason Play of the Year: Accidental flea flicker call vs. USC, Oct. 9

Utah held a 14-10 lead over USC with a minute left to play in the half when it got the ball. Points before the break would have been nice, but not entirely necessary. Whittingham said he was playing for the field goal to take a 7-point lead.

But Rising had other plans. The sophomore quarterback quickly led Utah down to USC's 37-yard line and faced a fourth-and-1 down, but Utah was looking to get the first down before setting up a potential field goal attempt. Rising misread the call and thought the coaches called a flea flicker.

Prior to the snap, USC called a timeout. Utah's coaching staff questioned why Rising was lined up in a different play than what was called and he explained he misread the call and chose to go with the flea flicker. The coaching staff liked the call and let Rising roll with it.

"I heard one call and I called that because I was like, 'Wow, this is a great play to call.'" Rising said. "I didn't know that they were calling it and then they called the timeout, and they wanted to stick with it right after they called it, so that's how we got to that."

"I said, 'Great call, let's go with it.'" Whittingham said.

In perfect execution, Rising found Devaughn Vele in stride in the end zone for a 37-yard strike and the score. It's what Whittingham later called a "huge momentum play."

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