Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham stressed the importance of the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium to help the no. 18 Utes (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12) pull off the win against the former no. 20 USC Trojans on Saturday 24-21. It was the annual blackout game, and a record crowd of 47,619 fans viewed the Utes come from behind win. The atmosphere was electric at the stadium.
"I want to lead off with, the atmosphere in Rice-Eccles on Saturday night was unbelievable. The way our fans supported our team, and the MUSS, the whole environment was really what college football is all about. That was a great experience for our players to be in that environment. Set a record for single-game home attendance, which was awesome. A lot of thanks goes out to our fans from our program, from our coaches and our players to let them know we really appreciate that. Really gutsy, gritty performance by our guys. The personality of this team is a mentally and physically tough group of guys that slug it out until the bitter end. It was another game where you had to play the full 60 minutes if you wanted to have a chance to win. We did that, and in the end our guys found a way to make the play at the end of the game to get the win. It was a big positive for us. We go back on the road this week to Arizona State. A very good football team. A very balanced football team. Right now they are in first place in the south, so it is a big challenge for our team," said Whittingham.
Quarterback Travis WIlson has had to fight for playing time with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson. Wilson started against USC, a decision some fans questioned, but he left no doubt, leading Utah on the game winning 11 play, 73 yard drive. Whittingham touched on the mental toughness of Wilson.
"Travis is just like the rest of our guys - a tough kid, a competitive kid," said Whittingham. "It hasn't been ideal for Travis this season - less than ideal, but he's had a great attitude through it all, as has Kendal [Thompson]. There is nobody happier after the game in the locker room than Kendal Thompson. That's the way you want your guys to be. You want your guys to fall in love with the team, not with themselves. That's what's happened with these guys. It's all about the team. Travis has handled the ups and downs of the season very well. As far as Saturday night, particularly in the throw game, the three things we talked about that were contributing to our lack of production - better pass protection, less drops, more accurate throws - they all came together. We weren't overly prolific throwing the football, we had a couple hundred yards, which is a big step forward. I think there was only one drop in the game. Travis was better with his throws and decisions, and the protection was much better. You add all that up and we had a much better result."
Wilson is not the only mentally tough player on the team. Whittingham credits the entire team for being mentally tough. Utah has had three straight comeback wins in the fourth quarter or overtime. Having strong leadership has been key for the Utes to pull of the wins.
"We definitely have outstanding leadership. That's not to put down the leaders of the past, because we've had good leadership on this team for a long time, but this year's group has really taken ownership of the team. It really starts with Nate Orchard. If you have to pick out the leader of the leaders, it's Nate. The governing from within that is usually associated with all good football teams, is there. It's great to see that happen, and that's a tough group of guys. Our leaders are a tough group of guys. They are mentally and physically tough as well, and I think that permeates throughout the rest of the football team," said Whittingham.
Utah has used their strength and conditioning program to help build the mental toughness of the team in addition to getting the team into the proper shape to play for the full 60 minutes of the game.
"I think our strength coach, Doug Elisaia, is one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country," said Whittingham. "He's been with us ever since I got the job 10 years ago. He came in as an assistant strength coach and was made the head strength coach shortly thereafter. It's been his program for a lot of years. Our players have completely bought in to what he is doing. I have to agree with Nate. I think that what we do in the weight room, and not only from a physical standpoint, with the strength and the lifts, but from a mental toughness standpoint, we start to instill that mental toughness in the weight room. It's a very demanding program, and it will get you mentally tough at the same time that we are getting strength gains and other things we need to get in the weight room. A lot of programs go in and just work on strength in the weight room - do a set, rest for 2-3 minutes, do another set - that's not our approach. Our approach is lets get them both done at the same time. We may sacrifice a little bit of absolute strength on one end, but the trade off you get from developing the mental toughness in the weight room is more than worth it in our opinion."
Whittingham touched on Utah's next opponent, Arizona State. Arizona State has used two quarterbacks this season, due to an injury to starter Taylor Kelly, so backup Mike Bercovici has seen playing time this season as well. Utah last beat ASU in Tempe in 1976, when both schools were still members of the Western Athletic Conference.
"Both quarterbacks are very good. There's really not a marked difference. I guess Taylor [Kelly] went out late in the game [against Washington] with maybe a possible concussion - I don't know exactly what it was - but whichever guy plays, they run the same type of offense. They both have good numbers and they are both quality quarterbacks. Whichever one is in there, it really doesn't affect our approach. Got a tremendous receiver - a strong kid who is maybe one of the most talented receivers in the country. Some say he is the first receiver taken in the draft. I don't know specifically about all that, but I know he's really good. Defensively, they lost a lot of good guys from last year, but they are starting to play better. They had some struggles early in the season defensively, but they seem to have gotten those things figured out and are playing very solid on that side of the ball as well. I'd say the best way to describe them is balanced. They are a very balanced team that is playing well in all three phases," said Whittingham. "We haven't beaten ASU in awhile. Last year we had them on the ropes. I think we had a 10-point lead deep into the fourth quarter and we felt like we let that one get away from us, and that was disappointing. The year before was one of the worst games we've played in the Pac-12. We got beat from start to finish. I can't remember what happened the year before that. You're right, it's been awhile. We've just got to play our game and do the things that have gotten us to this point so far and not try to make any wholesale changes and continue to get better what we are doing. I think that's all we can do."
Whittingham noted the similarities between this year's team and the 2008 team, which went 13-0, defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
"We had 'King Louie' [Sakoda] in 2008, so we had a special teams weapon. Where he was doing punting and kicking by himself, [Andy] Phillips and [Tom] Hackett are doing it as a combination. There are similarities on the special teams as far as the production we are getting. Defensively, I think the defenses are very comparable. Offensively, I think maybe we didn't struggle in the throw game as much as we have at times this year. We're hopefully getting that worked out. Very good tailback both years and a strong running game. I think you can draw a lot of parallels. The difference is the level of competition this year seems to be pretty stiff. Although we did beat several top 25 teams that year in that season as well," said Whittingham.
There were no updates on any of the players who were banged up against USC or players that missed the game against USC.
Click below to listen to our interview with tight end Westlee Tonga
Click below to listen to our interview with safety Brian Blechen