Utah Utes football: Kyle Whittingham urges his squad to respond to adversity
Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — In a team meeting earlier this week, Utah coach Kyle Whitttingham issued a challenge.
"Everyone has got to step their game up," he said. "Everyone has got to rise up and pick up the slack when we have the quarterback situation that we do."
With starter Jordan Wynn out for at least 2-3 weeks with a shoulder injury, the Utes are rallying behind junior college transfer Jon Hays in today's pivotal Pac-12 contest against Arizona State.
Whittingham insists his message is nothing against Hays.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Jon," he said. "But it's time to rally up and have everybody take their game to another level."
At 2-2 overall and 0-2 in Pac-12 play, Utah is at a crossroads of sorts — another conference loss will likely bring a premature end to the Utes' goal of participating in the league's inaugural championship game.
Last week's 31-14 loss to Washington and the accompanying loss of Wynn has brought adversity to the forefront.
"No one's going to feel sorry for us," said Utah quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. "We've just got to go out there and get the job done."
Preparation for the Sun Devils has gone well. Whittingham said the Utes have had good practices this week and are "a very competitive team."
They'll need to be.
Whittingham considers ASU the best squad Utah will face to this point in the season.
"Every position you look at, they've got athletic ability which is their strong suit," he said. "It's just sheer athleticism."
The Sun Devils (4-1, 2-0) have plenty of star power. The cast includes return specialist Jamal Miles, quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
All three phases of the game will present challenges.
ASU's offense includes running back Cameron Marshall and wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who rank among the Pac-12 leaders in rushing and receptions, respectively.
Osweiler, who is 6-foot-8, runs the show.
"He's very athletic, he's got a great arm and he's got great vision," said Utah linebacker Chaz Walker. "So we've just got to play defensive-sound football and do our job, do our 1/11th and make plays when they come our way."
After a poor second-half showing against Washington, Utah's defense is eager to get back to work.
"They're a good team," said linebacker Matt Martinez. "This is our opportunity to shine on defense, play to the best of our ability and stop a high-powered offense."
ASU has scored 35 or more points in four of five games this season.
A couple scores have come on special teams, where Miles has returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. The Sun Devils lead the Pac-12 in returning kicks and punts.
On defense, ASU is led by Burfict. The junior has already made 4.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks, three pass break-ups and an interception this season. The Sun Devils top the conference in pass efficiency defense (116.9 rating) and third-down conversion defense (25.2 percent).
Not exactly what a team using a relatively inexperienced quarterback wants to face. Hays will be tested.
"We just have to be smart in how we use him," said offensive coordinator Norm Chow. "And then make sure he does the things that he can do."
Wide receiver DeVonte Christopher and running back John White are among those who will assist Hays in his first career start.
Whittingham said there's no holding back as the junior college transfer steps in at quarterback.
"We've got to play to win. You've got to play to win every game and whatever that takes we've got to do," Whittingham continued. "If we have to go to the next guy, we've got to go to the next guy. But we've got to do what we've got to do to try to win a football game."
Adding to the urgency is the schedule. Utah's next two games are on the road — at Pittsburgh and at California.
The Utes are a bit vulnerable record-wise.
"Obviously it's not the way we wanted to start, but we've seen things in the last couple of games that we know we can take from and learn from," said junior fullback Luke Matthews. "So we're just excited for another opportunity. … Every week coming off a loss is a great chance to turn things around."
Utes on the air
Arizona State (4-1, 2-0)
at Utah (2-2, 0-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: ROOT Radio: 700 AM
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