Utah opens with Idaho State on Thursday night
Idaho State is carrying a 44-game road losing streak into Utah on Thursday night for its season opener. So coach Mike Kramer was brutally honest: He doesn't see his Bengals reversing that trend against the Utes.
''We've got some numbers that are just nasty. And one of them is our consecutive road losing streak,'' he said. ''Opening up at Utah and then playing Utah State next week, I'm sure that that streak's really not in danger.''
Idaho State hasn't won on the road since 2006. On top of that, Utah is 6-0 against the Big Sky's Bengals, including a 66-0 drubbing in the last meeting in 1994.
So for obvious reasons, most of the attention will fall on Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, who will be playing for the first time since last November when a concussion nearly derailed his career.
Doctors treating Wilson found damage to an artery in his brain. After closely watching the injury, the artery remained stable and the 6-foot-7 junior was allowed to participate in non-contact drills this spring. In June, he got clearance to play again for the Utes.
Wilson competed for the starting nod in fall camp with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thomson , but early last week coach Kyle Whittingham gave the nod to the incumbent.
''Travis was always a very competitive, hard-working kid to begin with, even before the injury, so there was never any lack of determination or motivation on his part,'' Whittingham said. ''But afterward I think you saw an even greater sense of that. I think that's natural. When something gets taken away from you all of the sudden and unexpectedly, and you realize how important it is to you, I think that gives you renewed energy for the game.''
Wilson passed for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games last season. He rushed for 386 yards and five scores. But he also had 16 interceptions.
Utah overall finished 5-7 last season and missed the postseason for the second straight season. Idaho State went 3-9 last season, the team's best showing since going 3-7 in 2008.
Here are some other things to look for Thursday night when the Utes host the Bengals:
IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME: Utah is 36-0 against current Big Sky conference teams, so what do the Utes hope to see out of Thursday night's game? ''Obviously it's our opener. We don't know a whole lot about some of the new players we have and how they'll respond in a game situation. That's something we're eager to find out,'' Whittingham said.
SCOUTING THE BENGALS: There are signs Idaho State is on an upswing under Kramer, who took over before the 2011 season and has consistently raised the team's offensive output. Quarterback Justin Arias threw for 3,547 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, while Xavier Finney ran for 868 yards. The Bengals return their entire starting offensive line from last season, too. Overall, Idaho State has 17 returning starters. ''It's a great opportunity for us to go down and come out of a game with a good feeling about ourselves. And part of that has to be how well we can play on our offensive front. Our offensive front has vastly improved over what we've ever put on the field in three years, and that should show up a little bit on Thursday night,'' Kramer said.
SENIOR STATEMENT: Utah's Dres Anderson is the leading returning receiver in the conference. Last season he caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging a Pac-12 best 18.9 yards per catch. He matched the national lead with seven catches of 50 yards or more. And some trivia: Anderson is the son of Flipper Anderson, a standout for UCLA - he was on the receiving end of QB Troy Aikman - and later in the NFL.
KICKING IT: Walk-on Utah kicker Andy Phillips made 17 of 20 field goal attempts and was a perfect 41-of-41 for PATs last season. Kramer hopes his team won't give the Lou Groza candidate a chance to pad his numbers this season: ''For us, success is not getting wiped out, not being avalanched, not allowing Utah's kicker to have to use oxygen on the sideline after kicking PATs,'' the coach said.
CONNECTION: Whittingham spent six years coaching at Idaho Stage back in the early 90's, and was defensive coordinator for the Bengals in 1992-93. ''I loved it, loved Idaho, loved Pocatello. Had a great time there,'' he said. ''It was my very first job at the collegiate level.''