PK: Best Is Yet To Come For Utah Football

Sep 16, 2023, 3:43 PM

How To Watch Utah Utes Football Rice-Eccles Stadium Weber State Wildcats...

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 16: A general view of the game between the Utah Utes and the Weber State Wildcats during the second half of their game at Rice-Eccles Stadium September 16, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – The preliminaries are over, with the primary objective each time accomplished as expected.

Utah’s football team didn’t exactly breeze through the non-conference season but still won all three games – the latest was 31-7 over Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday – in good enough fashion. Now commences the interesting part.

RELATED: Utah Football Remains Undefeated With Win Over Weber State Wildcats

From a competitive standpoint, as usually is the case, Weber State plays a football power such as Utah expecting to get a fat paycheck and a loss. Any mystery was eliminated early in the first quarter after Utah’s defense forced a three-and-out on Weber State’s first possession and the offense marched 69 yards in 10 plays for the touchdown.

Oh, sure, coach Kyle Whittingham nitpicked a few things – kickoff defense, for instance, was horrible and the Utes botched a field-goal opportunity – in his postgame remarks. Big deal, the football world is still waiting on the first team to play a perfect game.

“Bottom line, we did what we were supposed to do,” said Whittingham, who noted up to 16 players are out with injuries.

Let’s wait until the real competition starts before claiming any deficiencies. The intrigue begins next week, against UCLA, with the Utes facing a gauntlet of teams that most certainly comprise the toughest schedule in program history. Bring on the curtain call of the Pac-12.

In its final season before the money-grab – otherwise known as realignment – destroys the conference, the Pac-12 will go out in style. A record eight teams ended the week ranked on the top 25, making the conference unquestionably the deepest in college football.

“We’ve made some good strides these past three games,” said linebacker Lander Barton, whose pick-six extended Utah’s streak to 20 consecutive seasons with an interception returned for a touchdown.

RELATED: Lander Barton Intercepts Weber State QB, Takes It Back For Six

Led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams of USC, the depth and quality of quarterbacks sets the Pac-12 apart from its peers. From Seattle south to Tucson, Arizona, nearly every quarterback the Utes face will be capable of lighting up a defense.

In addition to the dynamic Williams, who plays the position arguably as well as anyone in the game’s history, the conference can boast of having several future NFL quarterbacks. Michael Penix (Washington), Bo Nix (Oregon) and Shedeur Sanders (Colorado) each have outstanding chances at making professional rosters in the next season or two, along with several others who will get a chance down the line.

As it stands, Arizona State and Cal look like the only two pushovers on Utah’s remaining schedule. Even Arizona, which was picked to finish eighth in the conference, has a potent quarterback in Jayden de Laura with the ability to at least test Utah’s defense.

Perhaps the team with the biggest concern at the game’s most important position is, ironically enough, the two-time defending champion.  For all his bravado in the week leading up to the first game against Florida, starting quarterback Cam Rising can claim to feeling “pretty damn good” but he’s yet to put on the uniform.

Donning a headset while wearing shorts and a t-shirt during games is not the most productive way to spend the non-conference portion of the schedule. Ideally, after suffering a knee injury in last season’s Rose Bowl game, Rising would have had a taste of live action before starting conference play.

But his first game will come during the conference season, which hopefully for Utah’s sake, is next week against UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium. But, with Whittingham continuing to guard Rising’s status as if national security depended on it, Rising’s return likely will remain a secret until game time.

The captain’s absence has solidified the backup quarterback position, which had been unsettled until redshirt freshman Nate Johnson seized the job with an excellent showing in last week’s come-from-behind win over Baylor. A dynamic runner, Johnson has improved enough as a passer to give the offense some hope if Rising remains slow to return or suffers his third serious injury in the last four seasons.

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PK: Best Is Yet To Come For Utah Football