Kyle Whittingham has a word of advice for any Utah player thinking about leaving the program: Stand up and be recognized.
Because senior night for the 13th-ranked Utes isn't reserved just for seniors. The longtime Utah coach wants to make sure anyone who has paid their dues hears the applause from the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday against Stanford.
“The worst thing is you come back and get recognized again next year,” cracked Whittingham, who could see players honored that may later declare for the NFL draft. “We don’t even know 100% right now (how many players there will be). We’re still formulating and getting the info. With COVID, it’s much more prevalent — everyone’s been here a year longer.
"Some guys now have two majors and still a year of eligibility. They’re getting a little bit antsy.”
The Utes (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12, No. 13 CFP) ride a 13-game home win streak into their matchup with the Cardinal (3-6, 1-6), a team they beat 52-7 last season at Stanford. Utah has a 69-23 mark when ranked in the AP poll under Whittingham, according to Pac-12 research.
It's been a roller-coaster season for a banged-up Stanford squad. The Cardinal won 16-14 at Notre Dame (now ranked No. 20), only to lose 52-14 last weekend to Washington State.
“They’re a little bit hot and cold, but they do have talent,” Whittingham said. “We’re expecting that they’ll play at their best.”
That lopsided home loss a year ago to Utah sticks with the Cardinal. Utah didn’t allow Stanford to gain a first down until it was 21-0 in the second quarter.
“They want to run the ball. They want to run it straight downhill right at you, just see who’s tougher,” Stanford linebacker Tristan Sinclair said. “We’re aware of that this year. Definitely been at practice, trying to be violent, trying to be intentional, hit the sled extra. Just being ready mentally and physically for a fist fight. Because I think that’s what it’s going to be."
The Cardinal need to win out to avoid back-to-back losing seasons. Tough to get motivated after losses the last two weeks?
“You don't have to worry about motivation if you have belief in who you have and what you're doing,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team is 0-4 against ranked teams this season.
To prepare for the loud crowd in Salt Lake City, the Cardinal have been dialing up the noise at practice. This helps, too — already experiencing road games at Washington and Oregon.
“It’s like second nature to us at this point,” Stanford receiver John Humphreys said.
The Utes will be without defensive end Van Fillinger after he recently suffered a lower leg injury. Fillinger had five sacks and two quarterback hits.
“Van’s a great player, great teammate, great person,” safety Clayton Isbell said. “He’s a hard guy to replace.”
The Utes, who are dealing with banged-up tailbacks, are 5-0 when they outgain teams on the ground this season.
“We’ll put it together and have someone out there at running back,” Whittingham said. “When you have problems and issues, 80% of the people don’t care and 20% of the people are glad you have your issues.”
The Cardinal had three true freshmen make their debut last week against Washington State. They've now used 16 true freshmen this season.
“A lot of guys — with all the injuries — have been thrust into positions and these guys have come in and played really well for us,” Shaw said leading into the Washington State game.
Stanford QB Tanner McKee has thrown for 2,208 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. It was his second 2,000-yard season at Stanford, putting him in the company of Jim Plunkett, John Elway, John Paye, Steve Stenstrom, Chad Hutchinson, Todd Husak, Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan as Stanford QBs with multiple seasons with 2,000 yards passing.
“Tanner’s been the backbone of our team,” Humphreys said.
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