Utah needed overtime to earn its 18th consecutive home win in its opener. Even if quarterback Jordan Wynn can’t play, extending that streak may not be too difficult.
The 20th-ranked Utes have never lost in seven meetings with UNLV in Salt Lake City, but they may be counting on backup Terrance Cain as the teams open their Mountain West schedule at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday.
Utah (1-0) hosted then-No. 15 Pittsburgh last Thursday, and built a 24-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter after Wynn hooked up with DeVonte Christopher for a 61-yard touchdown.
The Panthers rallied to force overtime, but freshman safety Brian Blechen made sure the Utes wouldn’t drop a home game for the first time since Sept. 15, 2007. Blechen picked off Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri on the first play of overtime, setting up Joe Phillips’ 21-yard field goal to seal a 27-24 victory in spite of three turnovers.
“We made enough mistakes in this game to lose it - enough to lose two games,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team jumped into the Top 25 this week.
Despite extending the program’s second-longest home winning streak - only a 26-game run from 1928-34 was longer - Utah didn’t come away unscathed. Wynn is day to day with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, an injury suffered in the first half against the Panthers.
Whittingham is hopeful the sophomore will be able to play against UNLV (0-1), but he’ll likely feel comfortable regardless of who is under center. Cain started eight games in 2009 before relinquishing the role to Wynn, who cemented his spot as the starter by throwing for 338 yards in a Poinsettia Bowl victory.
Whether Wynn or Cain starts, Whittingham also has to feel good about his quarterback’s top two targets. Christopher was named Mountain West offensive player of the week after catching eight passes for 155 yards, while senior Jereme Brooks hauled in five passes and two touchdowns.
Cain has experience against the Rebels, as he went 17 for 24 for 174 yards and two TDs in Utah’s 35-15 win in Las Vegas on Oct. 17. That was the Utes’ 13th win in 14 matchups with UNLV.
Utah has beaten UNLV by an average of 19.4 points in going 7-0 in Salt Lake City.
Facing a ranked opponent won’t be anything new to the Rebels, but their experience Saturday at home against No. 11 Wisconsin wasn’t a good one. Mike Clausen threw a touchdown pass just before halftime to pull UNLV to within 17-14, but the Badgers scored the next 24 points en route to a 41-21 win.
“We need to fix some things,” first-year coach Bobby Hauck said. “Right before halftime we made a couple plays to get ourselves back in it, but they came out and took the game in the third quarter and we just weren’t good enough tonight to beat them.”
While Wynn’s injury may give Utah no choice but to go to its backup, UNLV might willingly play two quarterbacks after neither was particularly impressive in the opener. Clausen started and went 4 of 10 for 23 yards and a touchdown before being replaced by Omar Clayton, who was 6 of 16 for 82 yards and a score.
Clausen and Clayton are listed as co-starters on UNLV’s depth chart, but Clayton has the experience of facing Utah twice. He’s completed 56.8 percent of his passes, and threw two interceptions in last year’s loss.
“They both have their own skill set and things they do well,” Whittingham said. “We anticipate seeing both anyway, so we will prepare for both. There is not a big difference between the two.”
Utah, headed for the Pac-10 next season, is 7-4 in Mountain West openers.