LAS VEGAS — Following a frustrating and disappointing 2020 season that saw Utah play only five games due to the pandemic, a number of Ute players could have ended their collegiate careers and declared for the NFL draft.
One of the main reasons they all chose to return was for this moment — a chance to win a Pac-12 championship and go to the Rose Bowl, two feats the program has never accomplished before.
A chance to make history.
Not to mention produce a 10-win season.
That opportunity presents itself Friday (6 p.m. MST, ABC) when No. 17 Utah faces No. 10 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
It’s fitting that this showdown will take place in an NFL venue — Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. It’s the debut of the Pac-12 title game at Allegiant Stadium.
Linebacker Devin Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist, postponed a lucrative NFL contract to play one more season for the Utes — and win a title.
“I had high aspirations when I decided to come back,” Lloyd said. “I had a lot of faith and belief in this team, understanding that we could get to this point. That played a lot into my decision to come back.”
“Absolutely, that factored in with pretty much all the juniors that decided to come back,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “That was one of the elements that helped make their decision. And I’d say it was fairly significant.”
Tight end Brant Kuithe also could have turned pro but chose to return “pretty much solely” with the goal of capturing the Pac-12 crown. He felt he had some unfinished business to take care of.
“Last year wasn’t a great year. Going to the Pac-12 championship twice and coming up short both years — just a horrible, bad taste in your mouth,” he said. “Coming into this year the main focus was going to the Pac-12 championship. We’re there right now.”
Yes, the Utes have reached this point before only to fall short in their quest.
Two years ago, Oregon drubbed Utah 37-15, ending the Utes’ Pac-12 title, Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff hopes.
“Making it to the championship and then not being able to finish the job, it’s definitely heartbreaking,” Lloyd recalled. “We’re doing everything we can in our power to be on the winning side this time.”
In 2019, wide receiver Britain Covey watched the Utah-Oregon game from the press box in Santa Clara because he was injured.
“I remember being pretty astounded and shocked about the result of the first half. We got outside of ourselves,” Covey said. “The moment was big. You don’t want to have the moment be so big that you psych yourself out and that happened a little bit. It’s good that we have some guys that have been in some games like this.”
On Nov. 20, Utah crushed Oregon 38-7 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, halting the Ducks’ playoff aspirations.
“This year they were going to the playoff and we ruined it for them. Two years ago, they did the same to us,” Kuithe said. “This time, we have to come out with a vengeance. We’ve beaten them once this year already. We have to prepare the right way and I expect the same result. … We’re right on the edge of being a great team. With this win, we can solidify it.”
Quarterback Cam Rising didn’t attend the 2019 game — he watched it on television.
“There seemed to be a lot of miscues. It ended up looking sloppy,” he remembered. “Earlier this year I reviewed that film to see it again. We’ve got to get back to basics and hone in on the fundamentals this week and make sure we’re doing the little things right.”
Covey said the previous matchup against Oregon should serve his team well in terms of mental preparation.
“It’s good that two weeks ago when we played them it was a nationally televised game so we know that we get in these games and we’re prepared for it mentally.”
Of course, Covey said, the Utes are expecting a fired-up opponent Friday based on what happened in the first meeting.
“What’s great is, we just worry about our mindset. But I know they’re mad. They’re going to come out hot, so it’s exciting. What more can you ask for than to have two teams with that mentality?”
“We can’t control (Oregon’s) mentality, what they’re going to come in with. But if we have that same mentality that we had the first time around and that same look in their eye and that same determination and that same attitude of not to be denied, we have a good chance,” Whittingham said. “So that’s our focus to how we approach the game. I’m sure they’re going to be in a pretty good mindset as well. It’s a big game.”
Lloyd is expecting a different Oregon team — not from an Xs and Os standpoint but from an emotional standpoint.
“I know they’re more motivated, especially after coming in and not playing their best football,” he said. “They’re definitely more motivated to play us but schematically, I don’t think it’s too much different. As far as the energy, I feel like it will be a different team.”
Rising is anticipating some new wrinkles from the Ducks.
“You’ve got to expect some radical shifts, some different things. They’re going to hit you with some new things that you’ve never seen on film,” he said. “Make sure you watch enough film to be ready for what they’ve been doing.”
“They’re going to do some things they haven’t shown. They had a tough game last time,” said cornerback Clark Phillips. “We expect them to come out fast and try to do things that maybe exploit us. We’ve just got to play our assignments and execute.”
Oregon bounced back with a win over their rival Oregon State last Saturday.
“They played with a lot of intensity. I think they got their groove back a little bit. I think they’re going to come in hungry and confident,” Covey said. “But it’s the same team and we’re the same team. They looked really good but we’re not going to psych ourselves out because of the opponent or the moment. We’re just going to prepare.”
The Utes have been preparing for months for this moment. With a win over the Ducks, they can claim a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth.
For those players who decided to return for one more season, everything they’ve wanted is one game away.
“It’s another game that we have to go win,” Rising said. “Every game is the same and I’ve been playing for the Pac-12 championship, and I know the rest of the team has been focused on the Pac-12 championship this whole season. This is the game to do it.”