LAS VEGAS — Not long after the final seconds slipped off the clock and the celebration on the field at Allegiant Stadium began in earnest Friday night, Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding stepped back from the large mosh pit of happy players, coaches and cheerleaders and stood alone.
Tears filled Harding’s eyes as he watched the throng savoring the accomplishment — the school’s first-ever Pac-12 championship and first-ever berth to the Rose Bowl after a 38-10 throttling of Oregon.
It’s not known what exactly was going through Harding’s mind at that moment, but certainly it’s been an emotional year for the Utah football team.
Perhaps no program in the nation has suffered more tragedy over the past year than Utah. Running back Ty Jordan died last December and defensive back Aaron Lowe was killed in September.
After months of grief in the wake of those devastating deaths, the Utes were able to celebrate after Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship. That’s exactly what they set out to do months ago.
As some long-haired philosophers, also known as American glam metal band Poison, sang in the 1980s, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
The Utes dedicated their season to the memory of Jordan and Lowe and they represented their fallen teammates, and themselves, remarkably well in the process.
“It’s been a pleasure to coach them all year long. What we’ve been through this year, it’s been the most difficult year of my coaching career in many respects,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.
“Our guys, our leadership, couldn’t have done it without those guys. They did such a great job all season long of persevering. Our mantra after the tragedy was, ‘We won’t get over it but we will get through it.’ I believe our guys really did that. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“It’s as satisfying as it gets, honestly. Just to know that we did honor them in the right way,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was named the Pac-12 Championship Most Valuable Player. “Up to this point, we did everything we could for them.
“I believe they were there guiding us throughout the whole season. Them being there with us throughout the season helped us tremendously. The resiliency of everyone on the team to endure something like that and still find a way to fight back and get to this point is just incredible.”
Both Jordan and Lowe wore No. 22 — and that number has taken on a special, sacred meaning for the program. The school retired No. 22 on Oct. 30.
It’s fitting that the Rose Bowl will be played on Jan. 1, 2022.
“Those are our brothers, for real. We had a lot of motivation going into the season, but losing Aaron in the middle of the season, that was tough, especially someone that was around us and really close to Ty,” said defensive lineman Mika Tafua.
“For something tragic like that to happen definitely motivated everyone. Like we say, 22% better every day. This was for them. This really was for Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan, so that we could etch their names in history. If we hadn’t won (Friday), it would have been a cool story, but now when they look at the 2021 Pac-12 champions, they’ll always remember 22, and Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan.”
Since then, Utah has won nine out of its last 10 games on its way to a 10-win campaign.
With the way that the Utes dismantled Oregon twice in two weeks by a combined score of 76-17, they played like a CFP contender.
“In the convincing fashion that they did it, if you would have told me that after the first three games that we’d be here right now, I would have said you’re crazy,” Whittingham said.
Despite those early-season losses, Lloyd believes his team has become one of the best in the nation.
“I definitely think we’re a top-tier team. And although we didn’t start off necessarily the way we wanted to, especially as the season progressed, I think they should take into account teams getting better,” he said.
“(The playoff committee) should take that into account because we may not have started out the best but teams can get better throughout the season.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing the playoff bracket expand a little bit and let more teams in there,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “That would be nice.”
That aside, Utah made history Friday night. Twice before, the Utes had reached this point only to fall short, including two years ago against Oregon, 37-15.
In a team meeting the night before this year’s Pac-12 Championship, Tafua stood up and told his teammates that had never played in this game that losing was not a feeling they wanted to have. He knew that feeling.
The agony of 2019 turned into euphoria in 2021.
“It’s fun celebrating with all the guys,” Tafua said of the postgame party on the field. “It’s definitely well-deserved for everyone. Everyone worked hard and everyone prepared. This is a great storybook ending to the season.”
But it’s not over yet. The venerable Rose Bowl awaits, and for a team that experienced the thorns of adversity all season long, Utah is relishing this moment.
“It kind of etches their name in history, too,” Rising said of Jordan and Lowe. “That’s really what we talked about doing all year and really wanted to get it done.”
Indeed, the Utes paid tribute to the names of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe in an indelible way.
“It’s a year filled with so many ups and downs,” Whittingham said. “Ty and Aaron, we loved those two young men and they were with us (Friday). I’m positive of that.”