‘We love the chip on our shoulder’: Why No. 11 Utah is embracing the underdog role
To many observers around the country, a USC victory over Utah in Pac-12 championship game is a foregone conclusion. And that suits the Utes just fine
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham loves how the Pac-12 championship game is being framed from a national perspective.
The No. 11 Utes collide with No. 4 USC Friday (6 p.m., MST, Fox) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“Just looking forward to going back to Vegas and running it back. All the cards have fallen into place. Everything that we needed to happen happened. We’ve just got to go see it through now.” — Utah QB Cam Rising
To many observers around the country, a Trojans victory is a foregone conclusion. They’ve been penciled into the College Football Playoff. And quarterback Caleb Williams is on the verge of being awarded the Heisman Trophy.
Whittingham is embracing this underdog role.
“Well, pretty much everyone has them winning already and going to the playoffs and Caleb winning the Heisman,” he said. “That’s already been talked about. We love that role. We love the chip on our shoulder, the nobody giving us a chance. We seem to thrive in that capacity and in that world. We’ll see.”
Of the weekend’s conference championship games, the Pac-12’s is the most intriguing by far. Utah can help determine the College Football Playoff lineup by ruining the Trojans’ Pac-12 title and CFP hopes.
If the Utes can accomplish that, they’ll earn back-to-back Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl bids.
“It’s a championship,” said running back Ja’Quinden Jackson. “Every game we’ve played this year, we’ve played it like it was the championship. Our mindset is the same.”
Of course, Utah handed USC its only loss of the season, a dramatic 43-42 decision on Oct. 15 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
But first-year Trojans coach Lincoln Riley said that he’s not focused on what happened earlier this season.
“It’s a championship game. You’re going to play a good team, regardless. I don’t think that we would be any more or less excited if it was anybody else,” he said. “I’ve been in this situation twice, where one of the teams got us during the year we ended up playing (in the championship game).
“This is not a revenge game. This is not what this is. We played a really good football game, as did Utah up in Salt Lake and it was an elite college football game. It came down to one play here or there,” he continued. “They got us that time but this is not about that game. This is a new game, a new challenge, a new setting.
“The teams have evolved. Both teams have changed certainly throughout the year. This is about that and the opportunities at hand. … We’ve challenged the guys to reset and understand that this is going to be a different game, a different challenge, a different setting.
“You’ve got to be ready to respond to that, especially against a tremendous team like Utah. … The game doesn’t always play out the same way the second time. You have to have an open mind and go compete.”
While USC clinched a spot in the championship game a couple of weeks ago, Utah needed a series of improbable events to happen in order to earn a berth in this contest.
Maybe it was fate, or destiny, that put the Utes back in the Pac-12 championship.
Going into last weekend, to clinch a spot in this game, Utah needed four games to go its way — and they did, culminating in Washington’s victory over Washington State late Saturday night.
“To be completely honest, I fell asleep,” linebacker Karene Reid recalled. “But I woke up at 3 a.m. in a panic, sweating, like, ‘Who won? Who won?’ I was relieved, man. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Just looking forward to going back to Vegas and running it back,” said quarterback Cam Rising, a Southern California native that grew up loving former USC stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinert. “All the cards have fallen into place. Everything that we needed to happen happened. We’ve just got to go see it through now.”
Riley said that loss to the Utes helped define the Trojans’ season.
“We were tested in a way there that we hadn’t been. We experienced failure. We experienced a loss and we hadn’t experienced that yet. … You win games and everybody’s happy. You wonder when you lose a tough game on the road, in the fashion that we did, right there at the last second, is everybody really going to stick to this now? Certainly, the mood, the vibe in that locker room was … disappointed but not defeated at all. Maybe even more inspired, which is what you hope to see.
“Most importantly, we did something about it after that,” Riley added. “You lose one like that in the middle of the season, you have to claw your way back to a position like this. And we’ve done that.”
Williams remembered before that game at Utah, the team talked about how great stories can’t be written without adversity.
“After that game, that was one of the things that was said in the locker room. We have this adversity in our life right now,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose, but we did lose. A great book or story can’t be written without it. … The vibe was completely different from times when I’ve lost before. It was a positive vibe inside the locker room after.”
Utah celebrated that last-minute victory over USC that night after Rising scored a game-winning two-point conversion.
“It was awesome,” Rising recalled. “Hopefully, I get to do something like that again.”
What will it take for the Utes to slow down Williams and come out on top Friday?
“It really needs to be a team effort. We can’t have the Clark Phillips Show or the Cole Bishop Show. As much as I want to see them do well, everybody’s got to have a great game. That’s what it’s going to take,” said linebacker Karene Reid. “It’s got to be a team effort. As well as the DBs cover, there’s got to be pressure on the quarterback as well. That quarterback’s too good to get an interception purely off of good coverage. There’s got to be a couple of moving pieces.”
Phillips, Utah’s lockdown cornerback, did not play Saturday against Colorado. Will he be available Friday?
“We hope so,” Whittingham said. “I can’t say definitively right now. But we’ll see.”
Yes, Utah stumbled a few times during the regular season, with losses at Florida, UCLA and Oregon.
But the Utes are in position to do what they set out to do at the start of the season — repeat as Pac-12 champions.
“That belief hasn’t wavered. We’ve never stopped believing even after a game went bad. It didn’t matter,” Rising said. “We just kept the course and that’s why we’re here. We’ve got to execute and finish it out.”
Facing a top-four program, with so much at stake, and many underestimating his team — Whittingham wouldn’t want it any other way.
Pac-12 Championship Game
No. 11 Utah (9-3, 8-2)
vs. No. 4 USC (11-1, 8-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700