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Utah Utes football: Utes determined to make themselves at home, again

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 4:30 p.m. MDT

Aerial view of Rice-Eccles stadium during the Utah BYU game Nov. 22, 2008.
Photo by Don Green (Don Green) Aerial view of Rice-Eccles stadium during the Utah BYU game Nov. 22, 2008. Photo by Don Green (Don Green)

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to Pac-12 play, Rice-Eccles Stadium hasn’t been much of a home-field advantage for the Utah Utes. Since joining the conference in 2011, they’re just 4-6 in league games up on the hill.

“There's a dramatic difference in a lot of the talent levels of the teams that have come in here,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “I will say our lack of home-field advantage is not because of lack of fan support.”

Whittingham noted that the fans have been outstanding and fill up the stadium each game. Thursday’s contest against UCLA is expected to be the 22nd consecutive sellout at the 45,017-seat facility.

“They're loud. It's a great environment. We can't thank the fans enough for the support they've given us over the last several years,” Whittingham said.

Utah fans watch from the stands on the last home game of the season as Utah and Arizona play Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah fans watch from the stands on the last home game of the season as Utah and Arizona play Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The Pac-12 struggles at home, Whittingham explained, is attributed to a different bottom line.

“We have a bunch of high-quality, top-25-type teams coming through here on a regular basis, and so that's been the biggest reason for that,” he said.

In 2011, Utah dropped Pac-12 home games to Washington (31-14), Arizona State (35-14) and Colorado (17-14). In 2012, the Utes fell to USC (38-28) and Arizona (34-24).

This season, Oregon State became the sixth Pac-12 team to win at Rice-Eccles Stadium since Utah was admitted into the conference. The Beavers edged the Utes 51-48 in overtime.

“The last couple of the years the Pac-12 has had great teams top to bottom and you can lose any Saturday because of the talent pool,” said senior defensive end Trevor Reilly. “You have to give credit to the opponent.”

Upset Utah fans watch as Utah is beaten by Washington 31-14 Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Upset Utah fans watch as Utah is beaten by Washington 31-14 Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Even so, Reilly still believes Utah has a home-field advantage. He noted that variables like not having a quarterback start and finish a season since joining the conference has been a factor.

Reilly is hopeful that the program’s assimilation to the Pac-12 and the play of quarterback Travis Wilson will help turn the tide.

“The competition has definitely risen from the Mountain West,” Wilson said. “... We’ve got to make sure that we make home games more of an advantage for us.”

Wilson added that it really just comes down to the team.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we play how we have been playing,” he said. “Our crowd has been great for the home games.”

After opening Pac-12 play with four consecutive losses the past two seasons, there’s a sense of urgency to capitalize on the schedule. Utah hosts Stanford next week before road games at Arizona and USC.

Reilly said it has more to do with the team’s goal of winning the Pac-12 South than avoiding another 0-4 start. Even so, the Utes are determined to re-establish Rice-Eccles Stadium as a tough place to play.

“Last year I definitely think we had a lot of opportunities to win at home and we just didn’t really capitalize on them,” said Wilson, who was especially displeased with how Utah failed to hold on after a quick start against USC.

Offensive lineman Junior Salt noted that nothing comes easy in the Pac-12.

“For the past couple of years I think we’ve just hurt ourselves,” he said. “There were many games that I felt that we could have won.”

Defensive end Nate Orchard has similar thoughts.

“There are so many teams that are good. It’s different every week and everyone has to come prepared,” he said. “I think there’s weeks where we didn’t do what we needed to do and guys not doing their assignments. So if we can get it together this week, I think we’ll get it.”

As for the 4-6 Pac-12 mark at home, Orchard admits that it’s very un-Utah-like.

“But what can you do about it?” he continued. “You just learn from it and keep moving forward.”

And in that regard, the junior believes the Utes are making progress.

Salt agrees.

“We’re a much better team than we have been,” he said before turning his focus to the situation at hand. “We’re the underdogs. So we have a lot to prove. It just keeps us hungry.”

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