The availability of Utah quarterback Cameron Rising remains the burning question as the No. 16 Utes prepare to host Cal in a Pac-12 Conference game Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Rising was the MVP of the Pac-12 title game last season but then suffered a significant knee injury against Penn State during the Rose Bowl and needed surgery to repair a torn ACL, meniscus and MCL.
He has seemed to be on the cusp of returning since early in the season, but the senior has yet to play.
“It was a big surgery, and it’s not an easy comeback,” Rising said last week. “I’ve been working my tail off.”
Rising has been doing drills with the Utes in recent weeks, and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has deemed him questionable before games, but each time the quarterback has remained in street clothes.
Whittingham plans to make a decision on Rising earlier than normal leading up to the visit from Cal, but he said he doesn’t intend to reveal his decision.
“If someone can give me one reason why it would help us win more to announce it, then I’ll tell you,” Whittingham said. “I can’t think of one thing.”
If Rising is unable to play, freshman Nate Johnson likely will get another opportunity. He struggled two weeks ago in Utah’s most recent game, a 21-7 loss to Oregon State, completing just 8 of 23 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also carried the ball nine times for just 3 yards.
Johnson was replaced by Bryson Barnes after starting the game 3-for-12 for 35 yards, but Barnes absorbed a big hit in the fourth quarter and was briefly hospitalized with an undisclosed injury after finishing 5-for-8 for 40 yards.
Another freshman, Brandon Rose, was expected to battle for the backup spot this season, but he suffered an undisclosed injury during a scrimmage before the season and remains unavailable.
Utah (4-1, 1-1) won its first four games of the season before falling to Oregon State. The 21 points surrendered were the most allowed by the Utes this season and the fewest scored by Oregon State.
Cal (3-3, 1-2) has alternated wins and losses this season. The Golden Bears also are coming off a loss to Oregon State, but they made things interesting in the 52-40 defeat in Berkeley, Calif., last week.
Cal trailed by just three points at the start of the fourth quarter before surrendering 17 consecutive points.
“We’ll find out where the defenders are come next week, because boy — and this is not taking anything away from Oregon State because I really do think those guys do a great job coaching — but, man, ooh, that was bad defense right there by us,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said.
Cal has used three starting quarterbacks this season but is expected to come back with freshman Fernando Mendoza, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception, in his first college start last weekend.
“He was not perfect but brought energy to the game. You could tell the tempo on offense was different,” Wilcox said. “He threw the ball pretty well, he made some plays with his feet. Overall, I’m very pleased with what Fernando did for his first start in that environment against that defense.”