SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utah Utes went back to work Monday, head coach Kyle Whittingham pulled all the seniors and captains aside.
"The message was it's easy to lead when things are going well and you're winning," he said. "The real test of what your capabilities are and what you're made of is when the chips are down and things are tough."
After losing two straight games, he explained, "it's a time to step up as a leader."
It's a duty the captains are determined to fulfill as the 23rd-ranked Utes prepare to face San Diego State on Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I think it's already started. It started with Coach Whit and what we talked about in our team meeting yesterday, it set the tone," said senior defensive end Christian Cox. "Yeah, we've had two losses, but we've got to just move on and we've got to forget them."
Cox acknowledged that the Utes "kind of wilted" when adversity hit at Notre Dame.
"That's definitely not like us," he said before noting that this week's practices have been great.
Utah's leadership core is leading the way.
"I think that's what made us 8-0," Cox said. "We've got great leaders, people who have been around the block and we're excited to go play in San Diego."
The enthusiasm is accompanied by stern determination.
"We need to step up and demand more from everybody. Everyone on this team has their place," said senior center Zane Taylor, who noted that the efforts of everyone on the team from a scout team guy to the starting quarterback makes a huge difference. "Everyone's got to do their part. It's my job as a senior and a captain to demand that happens and to make sure that everyone gives everything they've got going into these next couple of games."
The seniors, he continued, want to go out with a bang.
Senior running back Matt Asiata said the captains are telling their teammates to keep their heads up and are working hard to keep everyone positive.
"Don't look in the past and just keep moving forward," Asiata explained. "Our team unity is the No. 1 thing on our team right now. Everybody gets along very well and everybody listens. So as captains we've just got to push on that every practice we get and just get ready for San Diego State."
Junior defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, the only underclassman elected to be a captain, said the team is focused on not pointing fingers.
"It's not offense, defense," he explained. "When it comes down to it, we are all Utes. So we've got to trust each other."
Siliga, who added that there are a variety of leaders on the squad, can understand why fans are frustrated after the lopsided losses to TCU and Notre Dame.
"It may look like we're falling apart," he said. "But one thing I can tell you guys is our leaders, they are stepping up."
Utes on the air
No. 23 Utah (8-2, 5-1 MWC) at San Diego State (7-3, 4-2)
Saturday, 8 p.m. (MT)
Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AM