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It was the first down of the game against Oregon State, and Sean Mannion let one fly. Gionni Paul picked off before it fell to the turf.

But on the dive, his hand also came crashing onto another player's helmet. That's why he's been practicing with a black, club-like cast over his left forearm and hand.

Paul's very nearly eligible for a Purple Heart at this point: His hand is broken, he said, and judging from his conspicuous limp, either his foot fracture form the spring isn't fully healed yet, or he's got something else going on.

But despite these ailments, Paul remains happily in the game.

"I'm playing great with a hurt hand and a hurt foot, man," he said. "Teams, they to cut me, try to do things, but I love it. Bring it on. I love this game so much, I'll go out there on one leg and play. That's just the type of person I am."

The Utes don't have much choice: Jason Whittingham is still out, though in Kyle Whittingham's words he's coming along. Uaea Masina is done for the year, and Jacoby Hale is slowly working his way into the lineup.

Jared Norris and Paul are beat up, Whittingham said, but they're chugging along.

"They're warriors, and you can't get them to miss a practice," he said. "They're out there just about every day. Once in a while, the trainer forces them to sit out. But they've got the mentality you're looking for. They love playing the game."

No, you're not missing something obvious in the games: Paul takes off his cast for games, and he even got a pick last week against Arizona State.

The linebacker with a beat-up body cracked something else Wednesday as he recalled that highlight: a smile.

"We just keep on pushing, pushing, pushing," he said. "We just grinding the season."

Rowe to return • Senior Eric Rowe — we may not know until Saturday for sure whether he's currently a free safety or a corner — was practicing Wednesday and said he feels fine after sitting out the loss to Arizona State.

"No pain," he said.

He felt a different kind of anguish watching his Utes fall to the Sun Devils without him and senior free safety Tevin Carter, who were unable to make the trip due to injury.

"I had to stay home and watch it on TV, and I was just cheering them on from the couch," he said. "When they lost, it hurt me just as bad as if I was on the field, so of course I was itching to get back on the practice field."

There has been no word on whether Carter will play against Oregon. At Monday's press conference, Whittingham said Utah may apply for a medical hardship waiver if he is unable to go Saturday, meaning Carter will miss the remainder of the season.

Nonetheless, Rowe said he feels confident about Utah's chances against the nation's No. 5 team.

"Of course no one's giving us a shot. I expected it. But I think the way our defense is set up, that we can really put a halt to their offense."

Struggles passing? • Senior tight end Westlee Tonga said Wednesday that the passing offense knows it can be better.

It has been better.

"When we go out there and we have everything clicking, we're quite an offense," he said. "And we're not clicking, we're just a couple of guys."

Whittingham said the reopened competition between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson for the starting quarterback job has been "very good."

"They were both sharp today," he said.

Thompson, who stayed after practice to spin deep balls alongside redshirting freshman Donovan Isom (who regularly works late), said Wednesday's session started out slow but finished strong.

Wilson said he's not sure when they'll find out who will start against Oregon, but Whittingham indicated that coaches will give it one more practice and then analyze the tape.

— Kyle Goon and Matt Piper

Twitter: @kylegoon and @matthew_piper