SAN FRANCISCO — Utah quarterback Jon Hays is living the dream. Once ticketed for Nebraska-Omaha, he's now a starter in the Pac-12 — preparing for an extra-special outing against California at AT&T Park.
Hays' hometown of Paradise is only about three hours away and a large contingent of family and friends are expected to be in attendance to watch him play.
"I'm excited. I can't wait," Hays said. "Saturday can't get here soon enough."
The junior college transfer will be making his third career start since replacing the injured Jordan Wynn at halftime of the Washington game on Oct. 1.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Hays is evolving. In his first start, he explained, Hays tried to make plays when they weren't there and forced the ball into coverage, throwing picks. Whittingham said the next stage involved Hays not throwing the ball into coverage, but holding on to it too long and taking too many sacks.
Now, Whittingham is hopeful that Hays will let the Utes "live to play another snap" by getting rid of the ball without taking a sack or putting it into coverage whenever trouble brews.
Taking care of the football is half of Utah's two-fold emphasis on offense this week. The other is scoring touchdowns after moving into the red zone. The Utes settled for three field goals in last week's 26-14 win at Pittsburgh.
Blustery conditions made it difficult for both teams to pass the ball. Utah running back John White ran the ball 36 times, while Hays attempted 23 passes and was sacked seven times.
"He's got to do a good job managing the offense," Whittingham said. "He's got to be more productive in the throw game. We need to get more production there than we had last week."
The Utes need to have an effective passing game against Cal, he added.
Something along the lines of their only other visit to the stadium would be welcome. Under similar circumstances at the 2005 Emerald Bowl, backup quarterback Brett Ratliff made his second start in place of the injured Brian Johnson and wound up completing 30 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns in Utah's 38-10 win over Georgia Tech.
"That would be alright with us," Whittingham said.
Like Hays, Ratliff played for Butte College in Oroville, Calif., and attended high school relatively close to San Francisco.
Similarities aren't limited to the past and present Utah quarterbacks.
Both Utah and Cal enter Saturday's game with 3-3 records, including 0-3 marks in Pac-12 play. Arizona's surprisingly lopsided win over UCLA Thursday reduced the number of teams without a win in conference play to three — the Utes, the Bears and Colorado.
Utah and Cal have had two common league opponents in the early going. The Utes fell to USC and Washington by scores of 23-14 and 31-14, respectively. The Bears lost to the Trojans 30-9 last week and dropped a 31-23 decision to the Huskies in September.
Utes on the air
Utah (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12)7 comments on this story
at California (3-3, 0-3)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MT
TV: KJZZ Radio: 700 AM
email: email@example.com Twitter: @DirkFacer