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For Utes football program and its iconic coach, Rose Bowl has been long time coming

The No. 11 Utes are playing in the 108th edition of the New Year’s Day classic in Pasadena Saturday against No. 6 Ohio State.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham chats with reporters during practice for the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Ohio State.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham chats with reporters during practice for the upcoming Rose Bowl game against Ohio State at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — As a young boy growing up in Southern California, before he and his family settled in Utah, coach Kyle Whittingham learned what the Rose Bowl game is all about.

Known as the “Granddaddy of Them All” because it is the first, and oldest, bowl game, the Rose Bowl evokes a grandeur and mystique that is unique in college football.

And the No. 11 Utes are playing in the 108th edition of the New Year’s Day classic in Pasadena Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) against No. 6 Ohio State.

Whittingham attended a Rose Bowl in the 1980s, which featured USC. His grandmother lived in Pasadena, a place he visited often.

“She’d go to the Rose Parade pretty much every year so I’ve been to the Rose Parade a few times,” Whittingham recalled. “It’s got such a great tradition. We’re just thrilled to be here — 108 bowls later, we’re here.”

And after a decade of membership in the Pac-12, the Utes have finally broken through, winning a conference title for the first time and earning a spot in the Rose Bowl — also for the first time.

But Whittingham has been so busy figuring out ways to beat the Buckeyes that he hasn’t had much time to reflect on the monumental achievement.

“At some point, I’m sure it will hit me. There have been periods when I think, Hey, we’re going to the Rose Bowl and we won the Pac-12, a goal we’ve had ever since we joined the conference,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal. But to say that I’ve had a chance to sit down and soak it in and enjoy the satisfaction of it all, not yet.”

All-America linebacker Devin Lloyd returned for one more season, deferring millions of NFL dollars, for this — a Pac-12 title and a chance to play in the Rose Bowl.

“It feels amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world, especially with it being my first championship,” he said. “It feels even better knowing what this team has been through and knowing why we did it and who we did it for. It’s an incredible feeling. Something I’ll never forget.”

In a year that saw Utah beat USC in Los Angeles for the first time since 1916, the Utes have a chance to make history again — this time in Pasadena.

During most of his coaching career, which started in the mid-1980s, Whittingham didn’t think this milestone was possible.

“It never entered my mind. But when we entered the Pac-12, then it became a goal. It’s been a long, hard road, I’m telling you,” Whittingham said. “It was a lot of recruiting, a lot of development of players, a lot of hard work by the coaching staff and the players to get here. We’re ecstatic to be here.”

While this is Whittingham’s first Rose Bowl, it’s not his first New Year’s Six bowl. In the 2004 season, he helped lead the Utes to a victory over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, and in 2008, Utah upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. In both cases, Utah was a non-Power Five program and it was known as a “BCS buster.”

Recipe for Rose Bowl win?

Sure, it’s been a while since Utah played in those games, but can those experiences be leveraged this week?

Whittingham said that preparing for the Rose Bowl feels “very similar” to the Sugar Bowl prep.

“Anytime you’re in a game of the magnitude that we’re in, it’s just a different feel. It’s not a different approach,” he said. “We have the same format and practice procedure, that type of stuff. But a little more excitement.”

Indeed, Whittingham has a successful bowl formula that has helped his teams go 11-3 in bowl games.

“We’ve been on the big stage. Obviously, it was different teams,” he said. “But in 2008 a handful of these coaches (on Utah’s staff) were here.”

The Utes have been on the big stage this season, too — twice the Utes beat an Oregon team ranked in the top 10 in the country. Whittingham is confident in how his team will perform under the bright lights of the Rose Bowl.

“This group is mature enough to handle the situation. I don’t think it will overwhelm them. We’ve been in some big games this year, national broadcasts, on games that were very important and they handled themselves perfectly, I guess you could say,” he said. “The (Pac-12) championship game was a huge national stage and they handled themselves well there. My guess is that we won’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game.”

Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey speaks during a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, about the upcoming Rose Bowl.
Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey speaks during a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, about the upcoming Rose Bowl.
Jeffrey_Allred, Deseret News

Wide receiver Britain Covey and his teammates say Whittingham instills confidence in them because he has proven through the years that he can win big games.

“It comes down to not psyching yourself out. You do what’s been working. It’s nice to play for a coach with such a good bowl record because you trust his process,” he said. “When you’re playing a big team, you don’t change what you’re doing if that’s what got you to that point. That’s what’s working so you keep doing it. It’s a comforting feeling that you don’t have to change up things and do something completely different.”

Playing on New Year’s Day against a national power

As a kid growing up in Provo, Covey watched the Rose Bowl every year with his dad.

“Jan. 1 is the one day that my mom let my dad watch football completely guilt-free,” he said. “She let him kick his feet back, she brought him snacks, and said, ‘This is your day.’ So I would kick back with my dad and watch the Rose Bowl on the first of January.”

Also as a youngster, he noticed that the Rose Bowl announcers were the same ones that he listened to while playing video games.

“What sticks out to me was the main announcers that I love,” he said. “Those were the ones announcing the Rose Bowl. It kind of gave that feel that this is the biggest game. Even more than the teams that played, I just remember that this is the game.”

To play a national powerhouse like Ohio State, which has won eight national championships and 39 Big Ten titles, will also be memorable. The Buckeyes have six perfect seasons and seven Heisman Trophy winners. Their current quarterback, freshman C.J. Stroud, was a Heisman finalist this year.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud plays against Maryland during game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete, Associated Press

Just the kind of matchup Covey covets for his final college game.

“We play Ohio State and it’s ‘The Ohio State,’” he said. “You drive that into everyone’s heads the whole time leading up to it.”

‘We’ve got a chip on our shoulder’

While Utah may not have the brand name nationally that Ohio State has, quarterback Cam Rising is eager to show what the Utes can do in front of a huge national television audience on New Year’s Day.

Utah is no longer a program from the Mountain West Conference labeled as a “BCS-buster.” But many still view the Utes as the underdog.

“Some people have got bigger names than others. That’s just how it is,” Rising said. “You have to play football at the end of the day. It doesn’t really matter what it says on paper.”

Rising and offensive lineman Nick Ford are among several Ute players that hail from SoCal. Ford said his team is highly motivated to beat OSU, regardless of where the game is played.

“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. A lot of people around the country are saying we’re not a team you want to play right now,” he said. “That’s just our style of play — we like to run downhill and not change the way we play for any opponent. … We could be in Alabama or Georgia or Florida or Seattle. It don’t matter where we play. We’re going to do our thing. It will be fun to go out there and do that.”

What makes this trip to Pasadena even more special is what Utah went through to get here. The Utes saw two players lose their lives in the past year, including Aaron Lowe, who was killed last Sept. 27.

On top of that, Utah opened with a 1-2 record before winning nine of its last 10 games.

“I love this group. I love all the boys on this team. The amount of adversity that we’ve faced has brought us closer. I know I’ve been through a lot of hardship and I know how it’s changed me,” Ford said. “Now a lot on this team have experienced a couple of hardships. A lot of triumphs, too. We’ve been in the highest of highs and lowest of lows. We’ve all been even-keeled between there. We’ve learned a lot this year as men off the field and we grew a lot closer together.”

Certainly, reaching the 108th Rose Bowl game alone has been a historic accomplishment. But winning the Rose Bowl game? That would catapult this 2021 Utah team up there with the 2004 and 2008 teams — in elite, exclusive company in program history.