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The Utes owned the Rose Bowl — until they didn’t

On and off the field, the University or Utah made its presence known in California at the school’s first ever Rose Bowl

Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena
Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PASADENA, Calif. — For three hours in the 2022 Rose Bowl game, and for all of the week leading up to the three hours, the University of Utah owned the stadium, owned the town, pretty much owned all of Southern California.

Utes were everywhere. On the freeways. At the beaches. Under the Hollywood sign. Standing in line at Disneyland. Filling up the hotels. The drum and feather logo was everywhere.

But then came the last 10 minutes of a football game that began in sunny 60-degree weather and ended with Ute quarterback Cam Rising, the Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike who stepped in three months ago and saved the season, limping off the field in darkness, taking Utah’s improbably excellent year with him.

Bryson Barnes, a freshman from Milford, Utah, a farm town more noted for producing world champion cowboys than quarterbacks, took over for Rising and produced a heroic touchdown himself. But it came with too much time on the clock. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, on his way to a 574-yard game, used 1:45 of an allotted 1:54 to set up a chip-shot field goal with nine seconds remaining. Utah’s fate was sealed. Ohio State 48, Utah 45.

It was such a great party until it wasn’t.

The Rose Bowl doesn’t keep stats on entourages, but it’s highly likely no team in the 125-year history of the world’s oldest bowl game — “The Grandaddy of Them All” — has brought more fans per capita on its bandwagon than the University of Utah brought this week.

Utes migrated in from anywhere and everywhere.

Plans began nearly a month ago, early in the second half of Utah’s dismantling of the University of Oregon on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas — the victory that won the Pac-12 title and with it the Rose Bowl berth.

With the 38-10 win over the Ducks considered secure — even by Ute fans notorious for being nervous — the rush was on. Kennard Clark, a longtime season ticket holder who has seen the Utes through their thicks and thins, serves as a good example. As he sat in the stands and savored Utah’s victory, his wife Sandra was on the phone reserving airline tickets for LA.

Before the Oregon game ended, David Woodbury, the Utes’ director of ticket operations, already had 100 texts on his cellphone. Within little more than a week, Utah had dispersed its allotment of 25,000 tickets. Many fans went to the Ohio State website and bought tickets there. The Buckeye ticket office was happy to comply. In the end OSU sold a mere 9,000 of its allotment, sending the rest back.

Eventually, the Rose Bowl allotted Utah 8,000 additional tickets, meaning 33,000 were sold through the school. Beyond that, there were the Ohio State tickets and more seats obtained by Ute fans via the Rose Bowl site and secondary ticket outlets.

Bottom line: Of the 87,842 who watched the 2022 Rose Bowl, an estimated 60,000 were Utah supporters, maybe more. It was as if a full Rice-Eccles Stadium had been transplanted en masse to Pasadena, in addition to at least another 10,000 fans.

Ohio State, on the other hand, had an estimated 15,000 supporters. For one thing, the Buckeyes were pouting after losing to Michigan in late November and not qualifying for the College Football Playoff. For another, they had been to 15 previous Rose Bowls, averaging a trip every six years. They stayed home in droves.

When the game started, the Utes’ overwhelming presence was contagious and dominating. Utah went up quickly 21-7, and even after Ohio State narrowed the score to 21-14, Britain Covey — the soul of the Utes — got his hands on a kickoff and didn’t stop running until the end zone stopped him 97 yards later. It was the second longest run in more than a century of Rose Bowls.

By all rights, a kickoff return from a 5-foot-8, 170-pounder — and a Cam Rising 62-yard touchdown run from scrimmage two minutes later — should have buried the Buckeyes, who, not incidentally, were playing without their four best players — their two top receivers and their two top defenders — who opted to sit out this consolation bowl and save themselves for the NFL draft.

The only thing is, it didn’t. Stroud started figuring out he could pick apart a depleted Utah secondary (how depleted? Running back Micah Bernard played both ways, finishing third in rushing yards for the Utes and as a cornerback pressed into emergency duty he led the team in tackles with 10, nine of them solo).

Stroud connected particularly well with Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a wideout who decided to play instead of sit and whose 347 receiving yards rank as the most ever in a bowl game. Any bowl game.

It was a Stroud to Smith-Njigba pass that gave Ohio State its first lead, 45-38 with 4:22 left to play. Also by all rights, that should have buried the Utes. But Barnes had other ideas, keeping it close to the finish and injecting more hope for the future.

Despite NFL aspirations of Covey, linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell, Nick Ford and others, Utah is a young team with more than enough reasons to believe its first Rose Bowl will not be its last.

Still, for the fans, the exit from the first one was subdued and muted.

Thinking about what might have been and almost was, the Ute faithful filed out of the Rose Bowl somberly, heads down, past the merchandise tents.

The only items left on the shelves were Ohio State T-shirts and gear.

For most of the night, the Utes owned this place.