While their peers have been getting gobbled up by the big boys out West.
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"Operation Red Zone"
The first 10,000 fans who enter the stadium for Utah's season opener against Arizona tonight will receive free "Enter the Red Zone" T-shirts, as part of an effort to create a "sea of red" at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Coach Kyle Whittingham and a group of fans calling themselves the Utah Guerilla Marketing Team - the same group that helped promote "Operation Sombrero" for the BYU game last season - want all fans to wear red to the game, to mimic the scene at the Fiesta Bowl last season. "Support the Utes," Whittingham said. "Wear red!"
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig spent three years at Oregon before coming to Utah under new coach Kyle Whittingham several months ago, so he knows all about the way teams from the Pac-10 Conference approach teams like the Utes.
And he apparently hasn't been shy about using that knowledge to help motivate his new players.
"Coach Ludwig was telling us just how the Pac-10 looks at us Mountain West Conference teams," center Jesse Boone said. "I mean, we're a walk-over game for them."
Maybe not anymore, though.
Not only are the Utes opening their season against Arizona tonight at Rice-Eccles Stadium, they are trying to extend a school-record winning streak to 17 games with a team that looks entirely different than the one that finished an undefeated season at the Fiesta Bowl eight months ago.
They also are trying to keep alive a historic stretch against Pac-10 teams that already has helped make them the envy of their peers in the Mountain West, who challenge the Pac-10 in their nonconference games more than any other league.
"It's important that our league do extremely well against all conference opponents," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said, "but particularly the Pac-10."
Yet the Utes are the only ones who have managed much success lately.
While the rest of the Mountain West has gone 3-19 against the Pac-10 since the Utes lost at Oregon almost exactly four years ago, the Utes have won four of their last five meetings in that span - including three games in a row, something they had never accomplished since the Pac-10 era began in 1978.
The wins included two dazzling comebacks on national television two years ago and a 10-6 victory over USC in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl that was the last significant loss for the Trojans before they took off on a 36-3 stretch over the last three seasons.
The lone loss, meanwhile, could easily have been a victory at Arizona three years ago, had a referee ruled that Utah's Josh Lyman came down in bounds for a touchdown in the final minute.
"I think it has some significance, and as much for the conference as for the program," Whittingham said. "It's important that the Mountain West Conference plays well outside of conference. . . . We've had good luck against the Pac-10 the last few years, and I think that gives our conference credibility, as well as our program."
After playing at least eight games against the Pac-10 in four of the last five years, the Mountain West will play only three games against the league this season - with all three taking place this weekend. In addition to the Utes meeting the Wildcats, the Air Force Falcons are playing Washington in Seattle while San Diego State plays UCLA at home, aiming for its first victory against the Bruins.
"Certainly, it would be a legacy type of win for us, considering we've never done it before," Aztecs coach Tom Craft said.
The Utes don't have that problem.
In fact, they seem to be getting the hang of playing Pac-10 teams - which is good, because they plan to keep playing them.
The Utes are scheduled to play at UCLA next season, then get a return visit in 2007 while also playing at Oregon State. In 2008, they play at Washington State and at home against Oregon State.
"I love playing against supposed big conferences," defensive tackle Steve Fifita said. "When I was young, I wanted to play in the Pac-10. That was my dream, it was always Pac-10. Now, I just love playing against them, to prove I can play in the Pac-10. Plus, it helps recruiting a lot, and helps our confidence, too. Now, we know we can go in and just play against anybody. We have a good shot."
How good, tonight?
It's hard to say, considering so much has changed since last season.
Quarterback Brian Johnson is taking over for Alex Smith with a revised version of the spread offense but a mostly inexperienced supporting cast, almost the entire coaching staff is new, and the defense is rebuilding after losing seven starters.
Plus, most observers figure the Wildcats will be improved in their second season under coach Mike Stoops, after going 3-8 last year.
But the Utes have won 13 of their last 14 games at home, and never cease to get excited about the possibility of knocking off another team from the glamorous Pac-10.
"Oh, yeah," Boone said. "The Pac-10 is the golden conference right now, you know? That's SC, that's Oregon. That's all the teams you hear about with all the money and all the players and everything. We love to go in there and knock around a Pac-10 team once in a while and show 'em how you do it out here in the country."