Tom Smart, Deseret News
TEMPE, Ariz. — Utah's second season in the Pac-12 kicks off in the Valley of the Sun against Arizona State. Question is, will Saturday's game reveal a rising for the Utes? They went 4-5 in their inaugural campaign in the conference and that, obviously, didn't sit well.
Even so, things may not be any easier the second time around.
"The Pac-12 is markedly better this year than last year and so it's all relative," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But certainly we're not satisfied by any means with a 4-5 Pac-12 record."
Although Whittingham noted that there were some positives associated with the Utes winning four of their final five Pac-12 games in 2011, he acknowledged that the net result (a sub .500 league record) left room for improvement.
Now comes the first step — and it could be a doozy.
ASU defeated Utah 35-14 last season in Salt Lake City, and the Utes enter this year's meeting on the heels of a very emotional 24-21 win over rival BYU just seven days ago.
Whittingham admits the threat of a hangover is a concern. However, there's also something to be said about the intensity level they achieved against the Cougars.
"It's a competitive conference, and we've got to be up exactly like we were last Saturday every single week," Whittingham said. "We've got to do that nine more times."
Utah's quest to do so, however, has several variables. While the Utes' defense is expected to be stout, the offense is loaded with questions.
Topping the list is the offensive line.
"As they go, so will go our offense," Whittingham said. "That's the way I see it."
Although things have improved up front, Whittingham noted that there's still a lot of work to do for the Utes to be competitive in the Pac-12.
Then there's uncertainty about the ground game. With senior John White sidelined with an ankle injury, Utah managed only 49 yards rushing in the BYU game.
White's status for ASU isn't completely known.
"He did everything he could to come back (last week)," said quarterback Jon Hays. "The guy is a warrior. I'm sure we'll have him back this week."
Speaking of being back, there's Hays. The senior, who has replaced the retired Jordan Wynn as Utah's starter, made his first career start in last year's ASU game. He was intercepted three times.
That was then, however, and this is now.
Whittingham considers Hays one of the most improved players in the program.
"He's playing with a lot more confidence now," Whittingham said. "He's got complete command of the offense, and his leadership is infectious."
In studying film of last year's loss to ASU, Hays said he made mistakes that won't be repeated. Hays now has 10 starts under his belt and is anxious for the opportunity to redeem himself against the Sun Devils. He cites maturity, an improved skill set, hard work and a better understanding of the game for his "night and day" improvement.
Hays also credits offensive coordinator Brian Johnson for helping him become a "really good football player." Hays is grateful for all the opportunities the Utes have given him.
"I know I can play and my teammates know I can play," he said. "So that really helps to weather the storm."
Utah (2-1) at
Arizona State (2-1)
Saturday, 8 p.m. (MDT)
Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 networks (Comcast 37, 757), Dish Network (413).
Radio: ESPN 700, Sirius (132), XM (190).
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