LOS ANGELES — After practicing in the morning, both Utah and Ohio State spent part of Monday at Disneyland, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” participating in a cavalcade down Main Street in Downtown Disney and enjoying the rides on an overcast, brisk, rainy afternoon.
But there’s a specter lurking in the background, like a Disney villain — COVID-19.
College football has seen a few bowl games canceled already due to the spike in Omicron variant cases.
That’s not a fate that the Utes or Buckeyes want to see for this year’s Rose Bowl. Both programs are doing what they can to ensure that the game is played.
“I’m confident. I’m hoping that everything will continue on this course. We seem to be doing okay as a team, knock on wood, and expecting Ohio State to do the same,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Hopefully, the Rose Bowl will go off with no hitches.”
What’s been his message to his team?
“Stay safe, as safe as they can. Wear a mask and do everything intelligently. Don’t put yourself in bad spots,” he said. “We’re all vaxxed but one player that’s not. Out of the entire staff and players, every single guy is vaxxed with the exception of one. We feel like we’re in a pretty good place.”
OSU coach Ryan Day acknowledged that a couple of players on his team have isolated cases “but not key contributors.”
Day has also addressed the virus issue with his team.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked this year. A high majority of our team is vaccinated,” he said. “We talked about this new spike and the different precautions we need to take. Being in Southern California, we have to be really smart with it. We’ve talked about it. We’re trying to stay as vigilant as we can.”
“I’m confident. I’m hoping that everything will continue on this course. We seem to be doing okay as a team, knock on wood, and expecting Ohio State to do the same. Hopefully, the Rose Bowl will go off with no hitches.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
Wide receiver Britain Covey said the Utes are taking precautions.
“Our team is taking everything seriously. We try to wear masks, we do whatever we can. This is what we’ve been aiming for for years now,” he said. “If it’s going to be canceled, it’s not going to be on our part. We’ve talked about it as a team. We’re just trying our best.”
Whittingham said that the precautions being taken now are “very similar” to what they were during the season.
“The mask requirements are a little different here in Southern California than back home,” he said. “But we’re adhering to whatever the protocol is and Pasadena is different from other places in California. We’re following the guidelines and hopefully we stay healthy.”
One event scheduled for this week has been canceled due to COVID concerns. Both teams were supposed to attend Lawry’s restaurant and participate in Lawry’s Beef Bowl this week but instead, Lawry’s is planning to package and deliver takeout meals for both teams.
“Everyone’s been really safe as far as COVID protocols. This team has done a great job of being smart and not putting ourselves in positions where we could be knocked out for COVID reasons,” said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. “We’ve got our masks on right now and I think everyone’s complying with COVID protocols. I’m not too worried about that. I’m just focused on preparing for Ohio State.”
During the teams’ trip to Disneyland, there appeared to be plenty of smiles, albeit some were hidden by masks.
Covey has a special affinity for the world famous theme park in Anaheim, a place he’s frequented many times during his life.
“I love it. My teammates make fun of me because I’m so antsy right now. I just want to go on the rides. I’m the biggest Disney nerd of all time,” he said. “I used to come to every ride. I know where all the hidden Mickeys are in the park. I kept getting mad at my teammates that acted like they weren’t excited for Disneyland.”
Running back T.J. Pledger was one of those that teased Covey, and told him he would be leaving the park right away.
So Covey told Pledger that he’ll change his mind one day.
“Man, wait ‘til your little girl grows up. You’re going to be so excited to take her on the teacups,” Covey said he told Pledger. “I’ve always loved Disneyland, since I was little. I’m so excited to have kids and take them on these rides.”
No. 6 Ohio State (10-2)
vs. No. 11 Utah (10-3)
Jan. 1, 3 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700
Helping the players work hard to prepare for the game while enjoying the experience is a balance that Whittingham wants to strike during bowl week.
“It’s challenging but that’s something we’ve talked about as a team. The key to these bowl games is being able to balance the activities and the pageantry of the bowl with the preparation and getting ready for the game,” he said. “You have to be able to separate the two. When you’re on the field and in the meeting room, you’ve got to be all business. When it’s time to have a good time, have a good time. But when it’s time to work, you gotta work.”
Said Covey: “You definitely have to compartmentalize bowl games because I feel like you’ve earned the right to enjoy this experience, not just say, ‘We’re here for a business trip.’ In the season, the reason why you travel out is to win a game. It’s a business trip. But here, it’s like a business trip with benefits. You’ve earned the right throughout the season to enjoy these things. It just comes down to being able to compartmentalize it. You put your head down when you need to and enjoy it when you can.”
“When we go into our meetings and into practices, it’s all football. The team has been talking about that for a while now,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “We’re also here to also have fun and enjoy the events that go on. I’m happy to be at Disneyland right now.”
And the Utes will be happy to get to the Rose Bowl Game Saturday without any problems.
“We’re here and we appear to be healthy, knock on wood,” Whittingham said. “We’re just marching forward. Hopefully neither team will experience any setbacks. Hopefully the game goes off as scheduled.”