We have a lot of things we need to improve upon as you might expect, but the overriding factor is the way our players responded to adversity and the resiliency that they showed and just overall toughness. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t like everything he saw in Thursday’s 30-26 win over Utah State. He did, however, appreciate the final outcome and what it took to get there.
“It’s great to get the win and that’s the bottom line,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of things we need to improve upon as you might expect, but the overriding factor is the way our players responded to adversity and the resiliency that they showed and just overall toughness.”
The Utes gutted out some tough times in the opener, one of the most critical coming in the third quarter when Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton ran 15 yards for a touchdown as the Aggies extended their lead to 23-14.
Utah tight end Jake Murphy acknowledged that things got a bit quiet and a little down on the sideline after that, especially when the Utes’ next two drives ended with a punt and a lost fumble.
“But our team leaders stepped up and brought everyone together,” Murphy said. “We had to find out what we are, what we’re made of. And if it wasn’t for coming together as a team and talking, I don’t think (the comeback) would have happened.”
The rally began with a 45-yard field goal by Andy Phillips. The freshman, who was playing in his first football game, followed it up with a successful onside kick to set up another score before the third quarter was complete.
A 2-yard touchdown run by Karl Williams knotted the score and the ensuing PAT by Phillips gave Utah a 24-23 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Although Utah State reclaimed a 26-24 advantage early in the fourth, Phillips connected on field goals from 19 and 38 yards out as the Utes went on to prevail.
The response to adversity, Whittingham explained, is a big deal and speaks to the character of the team.
“It’s something you can build on and have it become part of your identity,” he said.
Utah showed some resiliency early in the opener as well when starting wide receiver Kenneth Scott suffered a season-ending lower leg injury. Whittingham noted it was very disappointing and heartbreaking because of how hard Scott had worked in the offseason.
“It’s just too bad it had to happen this way,” he said.
In Scott’s absence, though, seniors Anthony Denham and Sean Fitzgerald combined to make 11 catches for 192 yards against the Aggies.
“That’s what has to happen,” Whittingham said. “When a guy goes down the next man has got to step up and pick up the slack and both Anthony and Sean answered the bell.”
All things considered — from the response to Scott’s injury to losing an early 14-3 lead and later rallying back from deficits in the third and fourth quarters — Whittingham felt good about the lessons learned in the first game.
“At some point of the season you’re going to find out what you’re made of. So I guess better sooner than later,” he said. “But they responded. The entire football team responded and I was very proud of them.”
EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said that a redshirt decision on senior linebacker Brian Blechen won’t be made until midseason approaches. ... Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns, finished the game with a higher pass efficiency rating than Utah State’s Keeton — 174.9 to 159.9. ... Safety Eric Rowe led the Utes with 10 tackles. Nate Orchard and Trevor Reilly were second with eight apiece. ... The Utes host Weber State next Saturday.