Behind The Scenes Of Covering 2021 Utah Football Program

Jan 13, 2022, 3:47 PM
Utah Utes - Pac-12 Championship Game...
The University of Utah Utes celebrate after winning the PAC-12 Football Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks on December 3, 2021 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – As a sports beat writer, it’s hard to embrace all the events that come your way, no matter how big until the season comes to an end.

After spending the last week and a half thinking about what the last five months have been like covering Utah football (really the last year), I thought I would include you in my reflection process.

I decided to jot down some things about my experience covering the 2021 version of the Utah Utes.

Preseason Hype

Charlie Brewer or Cam Rising? That was the question that was asked by many of you to me and my colleagues as we tried to get Kyle Whittingham and every source we could get to figure out who would be the starting quarterback for the Utes against Weber State. After a strong spring game (despite the defense not allowed to tackle him), Brewer looked like the guy that could lead the program in 2021.

That was evident heading into fall camp because Cam Rising didn’t start throwing a football until June after recovering from surgery in November of 2020.

That wasn’t the only fall camp battle that we were following. The running back spot was wide open after the tragic passing of Ty Jordan. Kiel McDonald held onto Micah Bernard, who was the only RB with experience in a Utah uniform. Coach McDonald also went out and picked up players from LSU (Chris Curry), Oklahoma (T.J. Pledger) and Independence Community College (Tavion Thomas).

Out of all of those names, who expected the No. 1 running back to be Tavion Thomas? I thought he could contribute, but I didn’t think he would be at the front of the line from the beginning of camp. Without being able to watch practice, you usually figure out guys emerging by getting little snippets of information from Kyle Whittingham.

The minute Whittingham compared Thomas to Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, that changed everything for me. A big back that is physical and can pick up speed were traits that Utah fans love to watch. Zack Moss wasn’t the tallest but he was one of the most physical backs in program history.

Season Opener

The downside of covering a college football program is the long offseason and the short regular season. But, when the morning of the season opener comes, it feels like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. I get excited for the fact that there will be actual football being played.

This season opener had a different feel to it. With the news that Brewer would be the starter, seeing all the weapons Utah had on offense and the young talent on defense, also the tribute for Ty Jordan that would take place after the third quarter by renaming portal 22 “LLTJ,” brought a lot of excitement.

Utah picked up the win over the Wildcats, which was expected but what many didn’t expect was what was going to happen over the next three weeks after that.

Streak Over Rival Snapped

I am going to be completely honest right now. The Utah/BYU week is one of the most dreaded weeks of the season for me. Not that the game itself doesn’t deliver, it’s the ramp up to it. If I could skip the Sunday through Friday of that week and just go straight to the game, I would do it every single time.

Making the trek to Provo, I thought Utah would handle BYU. The Cougars just squeaked out a win in Vegas over a inexperienced Arizona team that was projected to be a bottom feeder in the Pac-12. Utah was clearly more talented. Heck, BYU just lost a lot of players to the NFL, including the No. 2 overall pick.

As the 2021 edition of the Utah/BYU rivalry was playing out in Provo, it was clear that the Utes struggled with the physicality of the Cougars, which is a sentence I never thought I would type or say about a Kyle Whittingham-coached team. You could see the disappointment in the eyes of Whittingham as he spoke to the media via Zoom after the game.

So many questions were surrounding the program at that point. Many were calling for coaches to be fired, starting with offensive line coach Jim Harding. Andy Ludwig and Kyle Whittingham were also included in that. I, for one, will never call for a coach to be fired (I leave that for my Denver Broncos), but I felt that if that trend continued going into Carson, California and into Pac-12 play, that some sort of change would be necessary.

Changing Quarterbacks

Sitting in a soccer-specific stadium in Carson, California was really cool. I didn’t expect the experience that I had covering Utah’s road clash with San Diego State. The open press box and the view being so close to the field was a breath of fresh air. Normally, we are at the top of stadiums with our eyes glued to binoculars during pregame warmups.

Things were looking good early before the third quarter came up and Brewer was clearly struggling. The offensive line didn’t have a great outing against BYU and the same could be said about the first two and a half quarters of the SDSU game. I remember turning to my coworker and KSL TV sports anchor Sam Farnsworth in the press box and we talked about Utah needing to make a change at quarterback. Just to try something different. Brewer was struggling getting out of the pocket and had a hard time throwing under pressure.

During the third quarter, Kyle Whittingham made the switch, which would ultimately change Utah’s offense for the rest of the season. Cam Rising came in and took command of the huddle and made that offense click. When the pocket would collapse, Rising had no problem flushing out to run and stiff arm defenders in the process. Something just seemed different about that team on both sides of the ball in the last quarter and a half and into overtime.

Everything had more passion behind it. More energy. Something we didn’t see in Provo and the first three quarters in Carson. Coach Whittingham said to the media after the game that they were going to evaluate the QB position and name a starter on the following Monday before preparation for Washington State.

But, you, me and everyone that followed the program knew that Rising would become the starter. That’s exactly what happened and Brewer decided to move on immediately. One quick thing on that, I have no problem with Brewer’s decision. He was trying to keep his eligibility alive for one more season. I just wasn’t a fan of how he handled it.

Wild Win Over Wazzu

I never thought I would watch a football game where the ball was fumbled so much that I lost track of how many. On top of that, Utah was able to win. It was kind of Deja vu for the fact that the game was sealed by another pick-six by my Faith, Family and Football podcast co-host Clark Phillips III. I was thrilled for him because I know how hard he has been working through the entire time he has been on campus. Thing is, I actually didn’t witness the pick-six when it happened. I was hopping in an elevator with the other beat writers to go down to the field to get ready for postgame interviews.

You could see a sense of relief from Whittingham in the postgame press conference, despite all the turnovers. It was evident that he was just happy to get a win after how things ended in non-conference.

Tragedy Strikes Again

I don’t think I will ever forget what I did on the morning of Sunday, September 26. I took the day off because it was my son’s sixth birthday. Having family in town and a small party planned, I wasn’t expecting to work. When I woke up on Sunday, it was exactly how I woke on December 26, 2020. And that was to my phone going off like crazy with calls, texts and tweets asking if it was true. After slapping my face to be more alert, I scrolled through Twitter and I didn’t have time to think about what just happened.

I ran downstairs to my makeshift work space in my basement and started sending texts and calls, while gathering as much information as I could. It was hard to believe that Ty Jordan’s best friend was shot and killed nine months from the time that Jordan tragically passed. On top of that, Aaron Lowe was the Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship recipient and switched his number from 2 to 22 during the offseason.

In the field I am in, I never expected to cover a tragedy like this not even once but twice in one year. The tributes that I saw in person and online throughout the season was incredible to witness.

Fast Forward To Las Vegas

Utah lost just one game after the tragic loss of Aaron Lowe, which led to winning the Pac-12 South title and heading to Allegiant Stadium. I decided to drive down to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 championship game. As I made the trek south on I-15, I couldn’t even keep track of the cars that I passed or that passed me that had something Utes on it. I knew it was going to be a pro-Utah crowd, but didn’t know the extent until I finished my 5.5-hour drive to Sin City.

Walking into Allegiant Stadium seemed like a dream. That place is so impressive. It put Levi’s Stadium to shame. That really says something since I can’t stand the Raiders. I remember the in-stadium DJ getting the crowd pumped for the game. When the DJ would have the Oregon fans cheer, it seemed energetic but when Utah was asked to make some noise, boy, did they do that and then some.

With four minutes and change remaining in the game and Utah heading to a historic win, the media went on the field for the trophy presentation. As confetti was flying, roses being passed around along with hats and t-shirts, it was a surreal feeling given what the team went through in December and September.

I was looking around the field as the players and coaches were hugging. I saw coach Jim Harding off to the side with tears in his eyes. You could see how proud he was of his room for the way they bounced back.

Next Stop: Pasadena

KSL pulled out all the stops and went all in for the Rose Bowl. We had coverage from KSL TV, KSLSports.com, The Zone Sports Network and beyond. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first ones from the group to be out in Los Angeles. The media hotel in downtown LA was all decked out in Utah, Ohio State and Rose Bowl logos. They had a lounge and a media workroom that was very convenient for those working around the clock.

After a crazy 24 hours of changing flights and everything, I arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon and immediately went to work, knowing that it would be wall-to-wall work until Sunday. The media availability on Wednesday morning was full of storylines. The players and coaches that were available to interview from Utah, included Devin Lloyd, Mika Tafua, Nephi Sewell, Clark Phillips III, Junior Tafuna and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley.

Ohio State had their offense available for interviews, including C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. It was fascinating to see the swarm around Clark Phillips’ table with the Ohio State media.

Utah had their team photo on Thursday morning, which was my first opportunity to see the stadium. The security there was no joke. We were taken to the stadium on a shuttle. When we arrived to a checkpoint in the parking lot, the media got out of the shuttle so that security can check the bus by putting mirrors under the shuttle and they had bomb-sniffing dogs.

It was a rainy afternoon in Pasadena when Utah football took their team photo in front of the stadium but that didn’t stop them from enjoying all the festivities the Rose Bowl had to offer.

Rose Bowl Gameday

The day finally came. It was the final day of the season for the Utes. The media hotel had shuttles taking media to the stadium throughout the morning but the first one was the only one that had a police escort. I had never received a police escort to a stadium. Utah should think about doing something like that for home games (joking).

We arrived at the stadium at about 9:30 a.m. local time. My colleagues and I went down onto the field to check out the views and it was incredible. You could imagine the tradition of this prestigious bowl game just by standing at field level.

As the gates opened for the fans at 11:30 a.m. local time, it was a sea of Utah red that started to pile into the stadium. It had a similar feeling to the Pac-12 Championship game in Las Vegas, but even better.

We all know what happened in the game, so I won’t hash that out but the media got to go down the field with about four minutes left in the game. As I got down to the field, I was standing on the sideline next to Dalton Kincaid’s game-tying touchdown catch. The roar from the fans on that play as I stood there was unreal.

As the players came off the field and were heading towards their tunnel to the locker room, all of the Utah fans stayed and cheered loudly for them. It was really cool to see the support the players received from the fanbase all season long.

Despite working a ton of hours and the result not going the way that fans had hoped for, along with being away from my family for almost a week, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Not many beat writers can say they covered a Rose Bowl and one that will go down as one of the most entertaining in its rich history.

Thank You

I can’t end this piece without thanking people that make this all possible. First person I want to thank is KSL Sports Director Nate Dowdle. He is hands down the best boss in the business and it isn’t close. I was already at KSL when he became the director and from the little time I knew him before he joined the team, he chose to trust me with the Utes beat when he arrived. Nate has allowed me to spread my wings and cover this program the way that I see fit and has given me all of his trust to do so. That is a beat writer’s dream.

Next, I want to thank KSL Sports Executive Digital Producer Madisan Hinkhouse, who motivates me to be the best I can in this position. If it wasn’t for her coaching and guidance, I would be a terrible writer and certainly not doing this job. Also, my right-hand man on gamedays, Kyle Ireland. That guy is an all-star. He gets so much content out during games and it’s ridiculous how he does it. He is the definition of putting your head down and going to work without complaining. He is a big part of our Utah football coverage at KSL Sports and I couldn’t do it without him.

The sports guys on TV, including Jeremiah Jensen, Sam Farnsworth, Matt Glade, Andy Munoz and Huu are the best at what they do. If I need a highlight or a video, they are quick with it and make it the best product it can be.

I am thrilled to be working with The Zone Sports Network. It’s been a blast joining Hans Olsen on the pre and postgame shows on radio throughout the season. Hans is the best in the business at breaking down the game of football. I am excited to be working with him again. It’s been a blast to hangout with Scott Garrard and get to know Lloyd Cole as well. Both of those guys are tremendous individuals.

I also can’t thank my Faith, Family and Football co-host Clark Phillips enough. He has a bright future in broadcasting when his playing career is done. I look forward to doing the show with him every week. He makes the show so fun and entertaining and I am glad he trusted me to be his co-host and be a part of it.

Last but certainly not least, thank you the fans that have followed along and read my stories this season. I love what I do and I can’t do it without you following the content that we provide. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Now, let’s get ready for spring football.

Trevor Allen is a Utah Utes Insider for KSLSports.com, Co-Host of Faith, Family and Football podcast with Clark Phillips III and host of the Crimson Corner podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorASports.

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Behind The Scenes Of Covering 2021 Utah Football Program