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For Rose Bowl-bound Utes and Buckeyes, rivalry game losses stung

Utah lost to rival BYU early in the season; Ohio State fell to its nemesis, Michigan, at the end. Both programs hope to atone for those defeats at “The Granddaddy of Them All”

Utah Utes safety Brandon McKinney and Utah Utes linebacker Hayden Furey try to get to Brigham Young Cougars QB Jaren Hall.
Utah safety Brandon McKinney (28) and linebacker Hayden Furey try chase down BYU quarterback Jaren Hall at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Ohio State lost to Michigan last month — and Utah can empathize.

One of the things that the No. 11 Utes (10-3) and No. 6 Buckeyes (10-2) share in common is both teams lost to their respective blue-clad rivals for the first time in a long time in 2021.

Despite those bitter rivalry disappointments, the two programs have earned berths in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

Utah’s 26-17 loss to BYU came early in the season, on Sept. 11 in Provo, which snapped a nine-game winning streak against the Cougars.

The Buckeyes’ 42-27 defeat to Michigan in what some call “The Game” on Nov. 27, in Ann Arbor, came in the regular-season finale, preventing them from playing for the Big Ten Championship and halting their dreams of landing in the College Football Playoff. It ended an eight-game winning streak against the Wolverines.

A little more than a week after that setback to Michigan, OSU coach Ryan Day, his team, and the fan base, were still coming to terms with that loss.

“It hasn’t been an easy week,” Day told ESPN. “It’s hard. It’s something (losing to Michigan) we haven’t experienced here since I’ve been here. It’s something that Buckeye Nation hasn’t experienced in a long time. The expectations are to win that game and when you don’t, there’s a lot of pain. It hurts. … You don’t just get over that in one day. We have to move forward and have a great bowl experience and get this win.”

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins breaks a tackle from Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Michigan won 42-27. The Wolverines will play the Utes in this year’s Rose Bowl.
Tony Ding, Associated Press

Going into the Michigan game, Ohio State was seeking its ninth consecutive victory in the rivalry. The longest winning streak in the history of that rivalry was when the Wolverines won nine straight games from 1901-09.

In the Utah-BYU rivalry, nine is also the longest winning streak. The Utes were riding a nine-game winning streak against the Cougars until this season (2010-19). BYU enjoyed a nine-game winning streak against Utah from 1979-87.

But for the Utes, qualifying for the Rose Bowl has eased the pain of losing to the Cougars. They couldn’t be happier to be headed to the Rose Bowl for the first time in school history, especially considering they started the season with a 1-2 record after losses to BYU and former Western Athletic and Mountain West rival San Diego State.

“The Granddaddy of Them All, right? I am thrilled. First of all, I love that stadium. Such a cool atmosphere. And to play Ohio State is pretty amazing,” said Utah wide receiver Britain Covey. “My first game of my career was against Michigan. My last game is Ohio State, which is pretty sweet. It’s one of those things where, as if coach (Whittingham) needs extra motivation to win a bowl game, his teams always get hyped for bowl games. We’re out here and we’re just as psyched. There’s no drop-off. It’s a credit to the leaders we have.”

Covey’s first, and only, bowl victory of his career came during his freshman season in 2015 when Utah defeated — of all teams — BYU, in the Las Vegas Bowl.

For Ohio State, losing to Michigan was costly.

However, going to the Rose Bowl is a nice consolation prize. So when the Buckeyes received word they would be playing in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, their mood improved considerably.

“The Rose Bowl is something that they target in their minds as a bowl they really want to play in,” Day said of his players. “They were excited to get the Rose Bowl berth, to get a really good opponent like Utah. I think those are the two things you’re looking for. A really prestigious bowl and a great opponent.”

Utah already knows how to rally after a tough loss to its rival. Two days after falling at BYU, Covey, a Provo native, took it upon himself, as a team leader, to help restore his team’s confidence.

That Monday morning, Covey saw a couple of teammates horsing around before a weightlifting session and he didn’t like what he saw.

“If I come in and I see two players joking around, I freak out at them,” Covey said Monday afternoon. “I got mad at a couple of younger guys because they were joking around before the lift. Just as a thing of respect to the competitors in the room that it still hurts.”

The mood at practice that day was “very somber,” according to Covey. And things got worse before they got better, what with a triple-overtime loss to SDSU the next weekend.

But since then, the Utes have won nine of their last 10 games. For weeks, the outlook has been rosy.

And now, Utah finds itself preparing to play in the Rose Bowl against an Ohio State team that it can relate to in at least one way.