PASADENA — For No. 11 Utah, its first trip to the Rose Bowl Saturday resulted in a painful 48-45 loss to No. 6 Ohio State.
So close, yet so far.
The Utes (10-4) led almost the entire way, and had a 14-point advantage three different times. It’s a defeat that will sting for quite a while.
It marked Utah’s first setback since falling at Oregon State back on Oct. 23.
But the Utes battled until the end.
Even when they fell behind for the first time Saturday, with 4:22 remaining, freshman walk-on quarterback Bryson Barnes, who had never thrown a pass in a game for Utah, replaced an injured Cam Rising and did the unexpected.
The Milford High product led a touchdown drive, throwing a 15-yard TD pass to Dalton Kincaid, to tie it at 45-all with 1:54 remaining.
Freshman QB Ja’Quinden Jackson was listed No. 2 on the official depth chart and coach Kyle Whittingham said Jackson was available to play. But Whittingham said Barnes was the Utes’ No. 2 quarterback.
In the end, OSU QB C.J. Stroud, who threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns, engineered a game-winning drive that culminated with a 19-yard field goal with nine seconds left.
Not only did Stroud turn in one of the best passing performances in bowl game history, but Buckeye wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also caught 15 passes for 347 yards — an all-time bowl record — and three TDs.
“We didn’t play very well all night long on defense,” Whittingham said. “It wasn’t our usual.”
Going into the Rose Bowl, Utah had won nine out of its last 10 games. The Utes captured their first Pac-12 championship to earn their way to Pasadena.
Wide receiver Britain Covey managed to put perspective on the loss to Ohio State and the 2021 campaign overall.
“I think this season is kind of a good metaphor for our team, right? Starting off 1-2, losing a couple of our teammates, battling back through everything,” said Covey, who scored on a 97-yard kickoff return in the first half. “I think it’s just a good metaphor for our team and for life. I think the reason why our program has that identity is because of the stability that (Whittingham’s) brought to it. We kind of just feed off of him.”
“They have a warrior-like mentality on this football team, and warriors don’t quit. That’s just the bottom line. There’s a great deal of mental toughness on our squad.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
If the country didn’t already know about the Utes’ tenacity and resilience, they probably learned something Saturday.
All-America linebacker Devin Lloyd also credited Whittingham for his team’s attitude and approach.
“I think it starts with the culture that Coach Whitt sets, and he establishes in each and every one of us. Then from the top down, it’s just a matter of everybody buying in, assistant coaches buying in, players buying in, and it’s really the type of guys they recruit. We have the underdog mindset where we’re never out of it,” he said.
“Even the higher rated guys, those are the type of guys that he wants in the program, and those are the type of guys he gets. Then it’s a matter of just really buying in.”
Whittingham gave the credit to his players.
“They have a warrior-like mentality on this football team, and warriors don’t quit. That’s just the bottom line. There’s a great deal of mental toughness on our squad,” he said. “The players that we recruit into the program learn from the guys that are already there. The standard is set. We have a saying the standard is the standard, and that’s what the expectation is. And the new recruits that come into our program become us. We don’t become them. They become us. We’re a mentally tough, physically tough outfit. That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
Yes, the Utes will lose a lot of talent and leadership from this year’s team, including Lloyd, Covey, linebacker Nephi Sewell, defensive lineman Mika Tafua, offensive lineman Nick Ford, and running back T.J. Pledger, who have all declared for the 2022 NFL draft.
Running back Tavion Thomas hasn’t announced any decision about his future, though he could also declare for the draft.
But Utah has plenty of talent returning, too, like Rising, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, running back Micah Bernard, safety Cole Bishop and cornerback Clark Phillips III.
After winning three Pac-12 South titles in four years, can the Utes win the Pac-12 championship again in 2022?
“We’re excited about the youth and the talent on this football team. We went through the roster the other day, and it was 72 of our 85 scholarship guys are scheduled to be freshmen or sophomores again. We were almost in the same boat as this year. Many, many of those guys are playing for us already, particularly on defense,” Whittingham said.
“We’re optimistic about the future. Can we repeat? I think it’s too early to talk about any of that right now. We do like the level of talent, particularly the young talent on this football team. Looking forward to working with them starting this winter.”
Utah opens the 2022 season on Sept. 3 at Florida.