Utah wide receiver Connor O’Toole (81) tries to catch a pass in the end zone ahead of San Diego State linebacker Segun Olubi (24) during triple overtime of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Carson, Calif. The pass was ruled incomplete upon official review. San Diego State won 33-31. (Ashley Landis, Associated Press)
SALT LAKE CITY — Minutes after Utah dropped its second game of the season Saturday night, Devin Lloyd told media the team had scheduled a players-only meeting for Sunday.
It’s the type of meeting that could make or break a team after underperforming to the preseason expectations — a team perceived to be a strong contender for a Pac-12 South title for the third time in four seasons. But with a 1-2 record and myriad of mistakes to point to as to why Utah is in the situation it is, it was on the team leaders to step in.
The captains called a team meeting.
It was a moment where the players, namely the leaders of the team, took charge without any other outside influence impacting the decisions made or talked about — not even the coaching staff. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said he was unaware of the meeting until after it happened and players told him of the meeting.
“It appeared to be very productive and got some things hashed out,” Whittingham said. “I think it was a positive. We’ll find out if it helps us throughout the practice week and in the game, but it’s certainly a indicator that there’s a lot of care and investment by them to do that. It wasn’t encouraged, they did it on their own.
“I don’t think there’s any signs of bad attitude, I guess you could say. Everybody’s upbeat; everyone’s more angry and frustrated than they are despondent.”
It’s a Utah team that’s not ready to call it quit just yet, even with the early-season disappointing results. The meeting was an opportunity to come together as brothers on a team that preaches family. When one family member messes up, it’s a time to hold them accountable while trying to move forward and project future success.
Britain Covey, one of the team’s captains, said the meeting was called to reinforce “what we as a team want our culture to be, not what someone else has wanted our culture to be or what coaches are trying to preach, which is all great things.” It was a time for the team to “come together and we decide” what the team wants to be.
“Forget about what people say on social media, forget about whatever injuries there are,” Covey said. “What type of team do we want to be and how do we reinforce that this week.”
It was an opportunity to get real about the season in a way nobody else could — a moment to air grievances while building up a team that has taken a beating off and on the field, physically and mentally, with its losses.
“It wasn’t as much a meeting about the sky is falling, we’ve lost two games, what are we doing? It was a meeting of, OK, what do we want to be?” Covey said. “This is a turning point, like we decide at this point. This is one of those points in your life where you get to decide. So it was very forward thinking, and I think people came out positive.”
To many on the team, there’s a “lot of noise going on right now — a lot of people writing us off,” receiver Devaughn Vele said. His comments echoed a similar comment made by Covey, too. The distractions are there, and they’re only amplified by back-to-back losses and the criticism that comes with it.
“We’re just trying to get our minds right. … We’re just making sure that we as a team stay together no matter what, that we’re in this together,” Vele said. “That no matter what’s going on outside we stay together; we know what we’ve got to do; we know what we do behind the scenes that nobody talks about.
“We’re just making sure our teammate chemistry is staying strong and that we know what we need to work on in order to reach the goals that we have planned for the future.”
Those goals continue to be a South division title and Pac-12 championship — all of which remain in tact despite a poor nonconference showing. The goals have been talked about since winter conditioning and they will until Utah is mathematically out of the equation. But with an 0-0 record in conference play, Utah still has much to play for as the season shifts to Washington State Saturday.
“As tough as these two losses were, it’s not taking away from our goal. … Did we want those wins? Absolutely, nobody wants to lose,” Vele said. “I mean, the Pac-12 championship is still what we’re focused on and that’s our goal. And the fact that we’re 0-0, that still gives us hope. That’s why it’s been so harped upon this week is not pouting so much, not being too sorry for ourselves about these two losses, and that’s what we’ve got to understand.”
Whittingham said his team can’t have the “deer-in-the-headlight look in our eyes” when adversity strikes; the resolve to the game plan must remain for the full 60 minutes of play.
“You’ve got to fight for the full 60, and if things don’t go well early, oh well, so what, keep fighting, keep playing and fight through the adversity,” Whittingham said. “Nothing’s easy at this level. Every week you line up, things are going to be hard and it’s hard to win. You’ve got to be ready to stay focused and confident for the full 60 minutes.”
While it’s easy to point to how a team can correct its errors, it’s another thing to put that to practice in a game setting.
But with Cam Rising named starter at quarterback over Charlie Brewer, who is no longer with the program, after he nearly led Utah to a comeback win over San Diego State when he was inserted into the offense, Utah has a chance to be the team it was in the fourth quarter in their comeback attempt.
It’s the type of play Utah believes really showcases the talent the team has. It also embodies the type of team many expected Utah to have before dropping to nonconference games. And whether it’s because Rising gave the team a spark or if a rhythm started to click for the players, it’s now a moment to have pride and respond to the noise.
“I take great pride and just making sure that I’m setting the example and just focus on doing that, but just making sure that everybody stays together and is really locked in on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Rising said. “That’s the most important part of it.”
“That’s one thing that we’re trying to focus on, and it’s so much easier said than done,” Covey added. “But blocking out all the noise, all the expectations from outside is hard to do — it’s really hard to do. But I think right now it’s easier for us to do it because a lot of people have written us off, and yet we’re going into something 0-0 in Pac-12 play, and so it’s exciting. It’s us against the world.”