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‘A long, hard journey’: How Utah finally arrived at the Rose Bowl

It’s in this place, Southern California, where the Utes experienced some of their highest points, and one of their lowest points — moments that shaped and defined their season. 

A Utah Utes helmet is displayed during a Rose Bowl press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021.
A Utah Utes helmet is displayed during a Rose Bowl press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — This is the place where the Utah Utes always wanted to be, and this is the time, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, that they wanted to be here.

It’s in this place, Southern California, where they experienced one of their highest points, and one of their lowest points — moments that shaped and defined the 2021 season.

No. 11, Pac-12 champion Utah collides with No. 6 Ohio State Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) in the 108th Rose Bowl game.

But getting here wasn’t easy. The road to the Rose Bowl started back in 2011, when the Utes joined the Pac-12, and after more than a decade of working and waiting, Utah has arrived.

As coach Kyle Whittingham said during Friday morning’s bowl press conference, it’s been “a long, hard journey” to reach this pinnacle in Pasadena for his program’s Rose Bowl debut.

Whittingham was referring to the past 11 seasons, but he could have also been describing this season, too.

It’s fitting that this memorable campaign, that began with a dubious 1-2 record, will conclude here. It’s fitting that during a season that seen Utah honor the lives of two players that wore No. 22, this game takes place on Jan. 1, 2022.

With all that Utah has gone through, it sounds like a movie plot.

At the Pac-12 media day in Hollywood last July, the Utes were picked to finish second in the South Division. In mid-September, Utah limped out of Carson, California, having suffered a bitter triple-overtime loss to San Diego State.

At that point, the Utes had lost two consecutive games and who could have imagined that they would wind up in the Rose Bowl? Things were so bleak that it appeared they might end up somewhere like the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl in El Paso.

Still, during that setback in the L.A.-area against SDSU, Utah discovered its offensive identity with quarterback Cam Rising, who replaced starter Charlie Brewer. Rising lit a fire under the entire team and provided a glimpse of its offensive potential.

“Thought we needed a spark, made the change, put Cam Rising in the game, provided the spark immediately, brought us all the way back to triple overtime,” Whittingham recalled. “We ended up obviously losing the game, but it was very apparent that he was what we needed. He proceeded to start the rest of the season and just got better and better as the weeks went on.”

But in Rising’s first start of the season, a home win against Washington State, Utah fumbled the ball seven times.

Then that night, cornerback Aaron Lowe was shot and killed while attending an off-campus party.

Everyone wondered how the Utes would respond after another death of a player, nine months after Lowe’s close friend, Ty Jordan, lost his life. Utah spent part of its bye week meeting with Lowe’s mother.

“That’s what helped us the most, was having his mom to tell us to go on and dominate the rest of the season,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “That helped because now you feel like you’re going out here with a bigger purpose.”

Later in the week, the team attended a candlelight vigil in Lowe’s honor.

To the credit of Whittingham, his staff and his players, they responded to that tragedy in remarkable fashion.

On the field, it started at L.A. Memorial Coliseum, a place the Utes had never won before. Late in the first half against USC, Utah was going to settle for a field goal but the coaching staff noticed its offense had lined up in the wrong formation.

During a timeout, Whittingham asked Rising about it. The QB said he thought the coaches had called a flea flicker. Whittingham decided to give the green light to that play.

And Rising rewarded Whittingham’s trust by executing a 37-yard flea-flicker to Devaughn Vele with 10 seconds left in the half, giving the Utes a 21-10 halftime lead.

Utah went on to win 42-26 — and everything felt different after that.

Two days later, team membersvtraveled to Texas for Lowe’s memorial service as they dedicated their season to him. Somehow, the Utes harnessed and channeled their emotions into playing with joy and executing with precision.

Along the way, the offensive line jelled; running back Tavion Thomas overcame his bout with fumble-itis to emerge as an inexorable, touchdown-producing force; and the young defense grew up, developed and clamped down on opposing offenses.

Aside from that crazy loss at Oregon State on Oct. 23, almost everything has come up Roses since October.

They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, including two overwhelming victories over then-Top-10 ranked Oregon, which beat Ohio State at “The Horseshoe” in September.

In the sequel in the Pac-12 championship game in early December, the Utes pulverized the Ducks 38-10 to earn their way to the Rose Bowl.

“The way they played down the stretch and how they played together and playing complementary football, certainly a tremendous amount of respect for coach Whittingham and what he’s done not only in his career, but this year and this team and all the things they’ve been through,” said Buckeyes coach Ryan Day.

As Whittingham will tell you, getting to the Rose Bowl is a culmination of years of consistent, diligent effort. Going from a Group of Five program to a Power Five program required a major investment.

“It’s just been a steady improvement in recruiting, and that’s what college football is all about. It’s all about recruiting and personnel,” he said. “When we got in the league, we had some deficiencies, particularly on the perimeter in the skill positions. We weren’t quite as athletic and fast as the other teams. We felt like we matched up at the line of scrimmage. That’s been since day one, but it’s taken us some time to steadily improve that roster year after year.”

Utah knocked on the door before, playing in the Pac-12 championship game three of the last four years. But this was the year that the Utes finally knocked down the door.

“It’s been a steady process,” Whittingham said. “We just kept at it — a great tribute and credit to our assistant coaches who are on the front lines of recruiting, identifying the talent and bringing the right guys to the table. I just give them all the credit. They’ve done a great job of assembling this roster, and we finally made it. So that’s where we’re at.”

The Utes are at the Rose Bowl game. The place they’ve always wanted to be.

It’s been raining all week here in Southern California but the sun started shining brightly Friday and that is expected to continue Saturday at the Rose Bowl, one of the most picturesque scenes in college football.

Tens of thousands of Utah fans have invaded Southern California to witness this historic moment.

The Utes’ storybook season is only lacking a storybook ending. For Utah, this opportunity couldn’t happen at a better time. Or in a better place.