SALT LAKE CITY — Every week of the college football season, Monday afternoon to be exact, the University of Utah puts on a press conference.
First up, without fail, is head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Usually 10 to 15 minutes in length, his forum is filled with questions by an array of media types, including television, radio, print and bloggers — not to mention the random Facebook user and Patrick Kinahan’s wife.
The questions range from anything and everything, and often have little rhyme or reason, as reporters seek answers to questions they alone care about — at least until their stories are published.
At the same time Whittingham fields questions, three Ute players sidle into the room, taking their place at designated seats next to the gallery where reporters sit.
Usually the players are well-known and well-regarded veterans, selected by the university's communications staff for their high-profile status.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley is always there, while Chase Hansen, Britain Covey and Zack Moss make frequent appearances. Cody Barton, Lo Falemaka, Corrion Ballard and Samson Nacua have each taken a turn or two this season, along with certain standout performers like John Penisini, following his showing against Weber State.
Immediately following Whittingham’s portion of the press conference, each of the players is surrounded by media, with recorders and video cameras at the ready.
Questions are asked, answers given — it’s pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.
As he was leaving the podium at the conclusion of his portion of the press conference this past Monday, Whittingham took a look at his players and noticed someone he didn’t expect to see — sophomore defensive tackle Pita Tonga.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning can relate.
In the Utes’ 21-7 defeat at the hands of the Huskies almost two weekends ago, it was Tonga who came out of nowhere and snagged an errant throw by the Washington quarterback. From there he rumbled down the field, untouched, a pick-six a practical guarantee. Unfortunately, the ball slipped out of his grasp 11 yards from the end zone and out of bounds.
“I wasn’t paying attention to how I was holding the ball and it kind of slipped out and hit my leg,” Tonga told the Deseret News after the game.
In most cases that would have been the end of the story. The Utes would have capitalized on the excellent field position created by Tonga and punched the ball in for a score. From there, who knows what would have happened.
Instead, the Utah offense was stymied by a Washington defense that has proven most adept at limiting touchdowns this season (Washington is 25th in the nation in red zone defense and has allowed just five touchdowns on 11 red zone attempts).
Blame for the Utes’ inability to score fell on Tonga.
People across social media, particularly Twitter, railed against him, blaming him for the fumble, the loss and the Utes’ failures as a whole.
He became a veritable punching bag.
“I did receive some backlash over Twitter for the play,” Tonga said.
The backlash was so bad in fact, that it led the Highland High alum to delete his Twitter account altogether.
“I did shut it down,” he said.
As it turns out, that may have been for the best. Tonga believes himself more focused on football as a result of his hiatus from social media, and with a difficult opponent like Washington State on the horizon, that can only be a good thing.
“I honestly feel like deleting social media was the best thing for me,” Tonga said. “I just felt like I needed to focus on football and move on and get ready for the next game. I am not mad at anyone and I don’t blame anyone. It is understandable that people reacted the way they did.”
Tonga didn’t delete his account before he noticed a great deal of support from fans as well, something that has allowed him to take his newfound attention, good and bad, in stride.
“It hasn’t been all bad,” he said. “A lot of fans were supportive, and I appreciate that.”11 comments on this story
Two weeks removed from the fumble, Tonga now jokes about it.
“I have worked on the simple things when it come to carrying the ball and I asked Zack Moss and Armand Shyne for tips,” Tonga said, chuckling. “They told me to just tuck it in, and look straight at the end zone. Don’t look back.”
Most importantly, according to an all of a sudden quite serious Tonga, “I just have to hold onto it next time. Those plays don’t happen often to defensive tackles, so I’m going to make sure that if I get that opportunity again I will do better."