Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media for his weekly press conference. While Utah was on a bye last week, there was still plenty for Whittingham to talk about, including players getting healthy, ESPN's College GameDay coming to town, and the game against the No. 23 Cal Golden Bears on Saturday.
"We’re back at it this week after a week off from competition. We have Cal Berkeley coming to town. They have an outstanding football team. They’re 5-0 and nationally ranked. They have a lot going for them. Their quarterback [Jared Goff] is an exceptional player. They have some receivers who are very good. Defensively, they’re doing a great job of taking the ball away. They have generated 18 takeaways this year, which leads the Pac-12 and is among the national leaders. We have our work cut out for us. It’s going to be good to get back on the field today and start our preparations for Cal Berkeley."
The bye week allowed the Utah football team to rest and heal up in preparation for a Pac-12 gauntlet the last eight weeks of the season.
"We had a chance to decompress a little bit after an emotional win [at Oregon]. More than anything else, it was the physical healing. We have guys who have been going at it for about eight straight weeks when you consider the fall camp aspect as well. It comes at a good time to get healed up and recharge your batteries to get ready for a tough eight-game stretch, which begins with Cal Berkeley this week.
"We had a lot of rest for our guys. We had some workouts for conditioning in the weight room and then a lot of recruiting for our coaches. We got them out of here Wednesday night and then they were able to recruit essentially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which was good for us to catch up on some recruiting. Those are the main things. We wanted to get the players mentally and physically rejuvenated for this tough stretch we have coming up."
As most fans are probably aware of by now, Utah is hosting ESPN College GameDay this week for the game against Cal.
"It is great [hosting College GameDay] for our program and university so we have to be able to handle it. If you want to be a good team, you have to handle the success that you've had and the attention that's being placed on your program. That's part of the deal. You have to be able to block out the noise and continue to stay focused. We have to continue to do the things that have gotten us here. If you get in the mindset where you're worried about the external things and end up paying attention to all of it, it's going to end up being a distraction so you can't allow that.
"It is business as usual [this week]. With the media today being what it is and all of the different aspects of it, you can't do anything to completely isolate yourself anymore. It's there. You have to be able to block it out. Each person has to individually be able to say ‘Hey, I have things I have to focus on and things I have to take care of business-wise' and not let things become a distraction.
"It adds a bunch of energy to what we're doing for the community and the university. It's an honor to have those guys come into town. If you handle it the right way, it's a plus for your team. Like I said, you can't let it distract you. You can't let it become your focal point, but as far as ‘amping up' our fan base and exposure for our university, it's great. We'd like to have GameDay here every week if they wanted to come here every week. We see it as a big positive. If you allow it to [get in the way of preparing for the game], I guess it could, but we try to just operate the same exact way every single week of the season regardless of who we're playing, regardless of who's on campus or who's not on campus, home or away. We try to stay very consistent in our approach and that's something that we've traditionally done a very good job of."
Utah has moved all the way up to No. 5 in the AP Poll, they defeated the defending Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks by the largest margin at Autzen Stadium since 1977, and College GameDay is coming. There is a lot that could distract Utah, but they must remain grounded despite all of the fanfare.
"No. 1, it comes from the team itself. We have great leadership on this team. Those guys are going to do a great job of making sure that we continue to handle our business the way we have so far. That's key. This team has a maturity about it, which reminds me of the 2004 and 2008 teams. [They share] the same type of maturity with the players and same type of leadership. That's where it starts. The job of the coaches is to reinforce that and make sure there are constant reminders of how to operate and what to pay attention to and in this case, what not to pay attention to."
There has been some talk that the new new Rice-Eccles Stadium turf has not settled properly yet.
"We're not worried about it. We haven't been on it yet, but we will be today. We'll be on it at least twice this week [before the Cal game]. We're scheduled for Monday and Thursday. There might be some weather issues tomorrow [Tuesday], but we may have a third day on it. We don't feel it's going to be a factor or any type of detriment. We'll be out there practicing on it this week and it will be the same for both teams [on Saturday] regardless of how it is, but we expect [the turf] to be very good."
Whittingham was asked if there are similarities between his current team and the 2004 and 2008 teams that won the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl respectively and both finished the season undefeated.
"Is there similar momentum? Yes. Is there a similar feel? Sort of, but it's still really early. We're still only one third of the way through it. There's so much football left that it's really hard to make a comparison yet to either of those teams. There is somewhat of a similar feel with the national attention we've received and that type of thing, but there's so much football left that it's just pointless to talk about anything but Cal Berkeley."
California has an excellent quarterback in junior Jared Goff.
"He is a tremendous talent. He might be the first quarterback taken in the [NFL] Draft. There are a lot of people who believe that. He's exceptionally accurate with over a 70-percent completion percentage. He very rarely misses a throw. You have to try to do something to slow the throw game down. That's what makes them go. They're doing a decent job running the ball, nearly 170 yards a week rushing. They're balanced. They're not as one dimensional as some teams that just throw it every snap. They're doing a great job scoring points. They score 43 points a week. One thing that has really helped them is their defense is generating takeaways. They're constantly getting the ball back, which has really helped their cause."
Whittingham was asked whether he believes California and Utah's place in the national rankings are justified. Whittingham has a vote in this year's Amway Coaches Poll.
"[California] appears to be very good. It's tough because I haven't had a chance to see every team play. As a coach, you don't get to see other football very often. The bye week is the exception, where you can watch a bunch of games. It's hard to get a feel nationally for who is playing well and who is not. I can tell you right now that Cal has all of our attention. They're deserving of their 5-0 record. No one has really had an answer for their offense. We're going to have our work cut out of us. As far as we're concerned and our situation, we're just taking it week by week."
On defensive keys against California:
"We have extensive computer reports and tendencies and that type of thing, but what it really boils down to with Cal is being able to cover their wideouts and being able to put pressure on the quarterback. If you just let [Goff] sit back there and let him have time to go through his read progression, he's going to complete the ball almost every time. That's what his capabilities are."
Utah may not be the first to do the fake punt return, but they have started a trend.
"I hope no one does it to us because we have no answer for it. It's tough to coach because when you're punting outside of ‘sky territory' (approaching the opponent's side of the field), you're taught to key the returner. People may have to change that mindset and find the football regardless of where they are on the field of play. We'll see how prevalent it becomes. It may just be something that showed up for a couple of weeks and then disappears for another couple of years, I don't know. That's why we put it in because we realized the difficulty of trying to defend it. If everything lines up and the kick is where you anticipate it, it's really hard to defend. We'll see how it goes and see how it progresses. We saw it initially from the St. Louis Rams against the Seattle Seahawks last year. The Seahawks were versed in it before we did it because they had it run against them for a score as well. I'd like to take credit for inventing it, but it was the St. Louis Rams. Where they got it is a good question. I imagine you could trace it back several years."
Blitz packages may not always be effective at confusing Cal quarterback Jared Goff.
"It's hard. He's a savvy quarterback. He's intelligent and very well-coached. Their offense is designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. It's hard to get to him because he does get the ball out of his hands so quickly. You still have to try to go through your disguises and not give him a completely crystal-clear pre-snap read. He's very good at deciphering coverages and blitzes and then uncovering where to go with the ball."
On reaching out to peers to help prepare to face Sonny Dykes' Cal team, Whittingham said,
"You have your contacts and acquaintances out there that you share ideas with. All season long, that is something we do. It happens almost every single week where you call people to share ideas and thoughts. We'll do a little bit of that."
Having increased national exposure helps the team on recruiting trail.
"Without a doubt [it has helped]. We have people reaching out to us, which is a good thing. It's all about recruiting and success on the field seems to lend itself to enhanced recruiting, which is a good thing. It just perpetuates itself. The more talent you're able to assemble, the better you're going to be. The more you win, the more talent you're going to be able to assemble."
Utah is one of the best teams in the country at developing talent, and that starts with recruiting the right types of players.
"First of all, we recruit a certain type of player here. We turn down literally 100s of football players who are very good, but not our kind of guys as far as the things we look for. Character is something we place a high emphasis on and value greatly. We bring guys into our program who will be coachable so that's part of the equation. We recruit a certain type of person and player so that's what we've done here for a lot of years."
Cal leads the nation in turnovers and leads the Pac-12 in turnover margin and sacks. While Cal is posting some impressive defensive stats, what they are doing is not overly complicated, just sound football.
"They're not really complicated defensively. They're very sound. They play just a few things and they play them very well. They do a good job of keeping things in front of them and waiting for the offense to make a mistake and offenses have made plenty of mistakes against their defense. They have forced eighteen turnovers this season so that's been there M.O."
Utah defensive end Hunter Dimick is expected to return against Cal after missing games against Fresno State and Oregon after suffering an injury against Utah State.
"We hope he's at or near 100 percent. He will be back [on Saturday], at least that's the report today. We're expecting that. I think I mentioned last week that we expected to have him playing. It's no real secret. He brings a toughness and a physicality to the defense. Not that we don't have other guys who are tough and physical up front, but he's exceptional in that regard. He's very talented. He had 10.5 sacks last year. I'm very proud of the guys who picked up the slack in his absence. Kylie Fitts did a nice job. [Filipo] Mokofisi bumped outside and played some end so the guys who stepped in during [Dimick's] absence did a great job. It's going to be great having [Dimick] back in there. It's just one more very good front seven guy. You can never have too many of those guys."
The crowds at Rice-Eccles Stadium have been electric in the two home games this year, and the Cal game figures to be no different.
"I can't say enough good things about our crowd and the support they give us. The atmosphere Saturday night should be electric. It should be one of the best crowds that we've had. I seem to say that every week because the Michigan crowd was awesome and the Utah State crowd. We are going on six years of consecutive sellouts approaching 40 games and that means so much to our players. The players feed off of that. The atmosphere at Rice-Eccles is great. Why we haven't fared much better there than on the road [in Pac-12 play], you can just attribute that to the level of competition we're playing in the Pac-12."
It seems like it has been home-field disadvantage this year in the Pac-12. Road teams have won all but two conference games so far this season.
"I don't have an answer for it. We went through that with our rivalry game. For a lot of years, it seemed like it was the exact same scenario. The visiting team, for whatever reason, seemed to have the upper hand. I don't know what the answer is. I don't know if it's just luck of the draw. So far this season, I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but it's pretty heavy in the visitor's favor."
There are a lot of strengths of this team this year, and several of them are surprises based on preseason expectations.
"First of all is quarterback play. Travis Wilson has been outstanding, particularly in the last ball game. He's leading the nation in QB rating. We expected the defensive front seven to be good and it has been pretty good. We've defended the run pretty well. The secondary has come around a little sooner than we thought. There was a little bit of a rebuild back there with some new faces. The wide receivers have taken steps forward as the season has gone on and played as well at that position in our last ballgame than we have in a long time. Those are factors for us."