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November 3, 2010

Utes in a good place

Tuesday's practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium gave an indicator of the team's mindset going into their impending battle with TCU, which could genuinely have National Championship implications, and certainly BCS bowl implications for the victor.

Historically light, Monday's practices usually provide little about the team's frame of mind. Tuesday then was important, and the Utes are in a good place amid the swirling story lines, building pressure, and constant reminders from local and national media about what is at stake.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham, by all outward appearances anyway, has done a great job managing his team's attitude.

Judging by the body language and general mood at practice, the Utes are composed, even-keeled, and there is no extra-spring-in-their-step or other traditionally over-used cliché's writers use to describe just these types of situations.

There is, however, an extra spring in the step of media members, with suddenly more appearances from faces rarely seen on the University of Utah campus. Media requests are swelling, as are the huddle of them awaiting the end of practice.

In the media "pre-game warm up", as we visit and trade valuable insight and opinions with each other while awaiting our latest Ute player and interview, quotable commentary abounded. It was almost effortless the way the media was able to hype itself up.

"This is bigger than the Olympics," said one prominent, long-time local writer of the impending showdown.

The New York Times is coming, The Sporting News, The New York Daily News and many other big name, national media outlets. The game is so important that even the Salt Lake Tribune food writer is coming. Throw in the likes of ESPN GameDay, Sports Illustrated, who is sending four photographers, and one can imagine the challenge of asking a group of college-aged young men to manage their emotions.

Yet, not one Ute looked to be struggling to manage anything, other than to get through the bunch of us on their way out of the stadium.

Despite the best efforts of the best, most experienced among us, there was not one juicy tidbit of a quote to be had.

Extremely calm and even-keeled himself, Kyle Whittingham fended off one loaded question after another, refusing to fall into a trap meant to play up an already huge game.

Whittingham noted that he liked the way his team was practicing this week, and felt that the team is playing its best football of the year.

"Monday was the best Monday we've ever had. Today is the best Tuesday we've ever had," said Whittingham. "We feel good about where we are."

Whittingham also has a handle on the potentially pressure-packed situation, indicating that the Utes have to play efficiently, smart, and need to execute, but stopped short of adding more pressure to his squad and the type of effort it might take to win.

"I don't think we need to play a perfect game to win, I wouldn't say that," Whittingham said. "I don't think that's true. We want to execute our game plan, and minimize our mistakes, obviously. We need to play well, sharp. We certainly need to play better than last year, but I wouldn't say we need to be perfect."

Those are important words from the head man, charged with guiding the tone and shape of this all-important weeks as most national pundits agree that the Utes will need a near-perfect game to win. Little do they know, the Utes tend to thrive on the underdog role, so the it actually plays right into the hands of the Utes.

Whittingham also agreed that the game day atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium and fan support could play a role in the outcome of the game, and applauded fans for creating such a difficult environment for visiting teams. Especially in light of the fact that TCU altered their game preparations this week, opting to practice inside in order to trap simulated crowd noise and making it louder for his No. 3 ranked Horned Frogs.

Perhaps one of the best media-prepared teams in college football; there isn't a Ute player or coach that would admit to anything, if there was anything to admit.
The interesting thing is, this media member actually bought what the Utes were selling, and believed that they believe in their philosophy. This is just another week, perhaps with more on the line, but just another week.

"We've worked too hard to put too much into one game," an almost bored Caleb Schlauderaff said. "It just doesn't make any sense to put all our eggs in one basket. Everyone knows what's at stake."

Defensive line coach John Pease, an NFL coaching veteran of years didn't bat an eye.

"I guess I'm not a good guy to ask about this. In my experience, every week is the same battle, the same test," he said. "We didn't have big up and down swings because every week you faced someone who could easily knock you off," he said. "These are smart kids; you don't have to explain anything to them. This is a marathon, not a one-game deal. Without the other seven weeks, this game means nothing. Without a win this week, the other three mean nothing. It's simple I guess that's what I can bring to this process, but they don't need me to tell them that."

Offensive lineman Tevita Stevens had much the same demeanor and truly looked as if it were any other Tuesday on any other game week.

"This is definitely what you play for, but you still have to come in prepared. You don't stop working or change anything because you have the chance to play this kind of game," Stevens explained with a shrug. "I'm not going to change what I do now just because of who we're playing."

Coach Pease echoed Stevens' statement.

"It doesn't make sense to be anything than what you are because your opponent changes. We're not going to worry about their team, we're going to take care of our own business, focus on what we need to do to get better, to fix mistakes," said Pease. "If you don't do that every week, no matter who the opponent, you could lose. The key is to make sure we are the best prepared that we can be this week, every week. The way we do that is to do what always do. Then put them out on the field, and we'll see how it works out. It's a football game."

If anything, the Utes seem excited-but not overly-for the challenge. There is almost a sense of relief that the week is finally here, and that they no longer have to find ways to manufacture emotion and motivation as they have had to do while cruising through their first seven weeks of the season.

Every other conversation with Ute players went roughly the same, and so brought back down to earth, ironically, by Ute players and coaches alike, the big game has suddenly fallen into perspective.

The bottom line is, getting to the big game isn't enough nor is it the end goal. Losing perspective and control of emotions and expectations at this critical juncture doesn't help win games; on the contrary it goes a long way toward losing them.

At the end of the day, no one remembers teams that played in big games and lost, they only remember the teams that win the big games. The Utes seem to have all the perspective and mindset down this week, and if it holds true, are putting themselves in the best possible position to win this particular big game.


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