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‘These kids never blinked:’ Amid injuries and adversity, Utes’ resolve and depth came through

The Utes likely will face No. 8 Penn State in Pasadena

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Utah quarterback Cam Rising looks for an opening during Pac-12 championship game against USC in at the Allegiant Stadium.

Utah quarterback Cam Rising looks for an opening during Pac-12 championship game against USC in at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — A week ago, No. 11 Utah had to win at Colorado; hope Oregon State could upset Oregon; and pray Washington could win at Washington State — just to get into the Pac-12 championship game. 

Not only did all of the stars align for the Utes last Saturday — the Beavers overcame a 31-10 second-half deficit and the Huskies prevailed late that night, in the final hour of the final day of the regular season — but they also made the most of their opportunity at Allegiant Stadium Friday night by throttling No. 4 USC 47-24

Utah (10-3) is now back-to-back Pac-12 champions and will play in the Rose Bowl for the second consecutive season on Jan. 2 in Pasadena. The Utes are expected to face No. 8 Penn State.

However, if Purdue upsets No. 2 Michigan in the Big Ten championship game Saturday, the Boilermakers would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. 

The Wolverines, who trounced Ohio State a week ago, figure to be a lock for the CFP regardless of Saturday’s outcome. 

Meanwhile, Utah’s victory knocked the Trojans out of the CFP and the No. 5 Buckeyes — the same team that beat the Utes in last year’s Rose Bowl — are expected to grab a playoff berth. 

That would leave the Nittany Lions as the next-highest Big Ten team in the CFP rankings.

For now, though, the Utes can relish what they have accomplished so far. Late Friday, coach Kyle Whittingham reflected on the season. 

It began with a 29-26 loss at Florida and included road losses at UCLA and Oregon. And, of course, the Utes also beat USC twice

“As gratifying as any season I can remember. We had our backs against the wall when we got beat by Oregon a couple of weeks back,” Whittingham said. “These kids never blinked, never flinched. We kept believing. Once we got the news after the Oregon game that there was a pathway that we could get to this game, our guys were just ecstatic.

“We knew some things had to line up, one of which we had control of. It’s been a magical season in a lot of ways. Things just fell into place,” Whittingham continued. “To have this team, this is the goal way back in January, a bunch of our guys came back instead of opting to the NFL, is to run it back, as they called it.”

It’s one thing to earn the program’s first Pac-12 championship, which happened last year, and another to defend that title — and do so amid a season that currently has six Pac-12 teams represented in the top 17 of the current CFP rankings. 

On Friday, Utah doubled its pleasure, doubled its fun with a dominating win over USC. 

Yes, it was twice as nice for the Utes. And for the second straight year, they celebrated at Allegiant Stadium, roses clutched in their hands, roses clenched in their teeth.

“Great job by our players repeating as Pac-12 champs,” Whittingham said. “What more can you say? It’s been a great 12 months. Excited to go to the Rose Bowl again.”

Then, he said with a smile, “Got to keep the good luck hair for another month now, so you have to deal with that.”

The Utes benefited from outstanding performances all over the field against the Trojans. 

Quarterback Cam Rising finished with a higher QB rating than Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams of USC. Rising completed 22 of 34 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns and he picked up some big yards with his feet as well. 

Running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, who started the season as a backup quarterback, was switched to running back in late September.

And by the end of the season, in the Pac-12 championship game, he rushed 13 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns. 

Jackson was a close friend of running back Ty Jordan, who died nearly two years ago. Another teammate, Aaron Lowe, died more than a year ago. Jackson said this achievement is dedicated to those players, who both wore No. 22.

“Man, unbelievable. I don’t even know how to describe it,” Jackson said. “Like I’ve been saying all year, we’re doing this for ‘22.’ I even got it on my wrist. Year 2022, doing it for ‘22’ so it definitely was our year.”

The way Jackson played Friday was emblematic of the many contributions that the Utes got from reserve players stepping in for starters that weren’t on the field due to injuries or other issues. 

Running back Tavion Thomas missed a lot of playing time this season and ultimately declared for the NFL draft a week ago. And Jackson made the most of his chance.

In late September, the Utes lost star tight end Brant Kuithe to a season-ending injury. 

Tight end Thomas Yassmin caught two passes for 81 yards, including a 60-yard TD against USC in the title game. 

“It says we have depth in the roster. That’s what we’ve been trying to achieve ever since we got into the conference. When we first got here, our first 22 were good, but a big drop-off after that. We’ve been working tirelessly to improve the depth of the roster,” Whittingham said. “I think we’re as deep and as talented as we’ve ever been. I know we are.

“I think that was manifest a lot of times this season. A lot of times we were without guys. Other years probably couldn’t have overcome it, not continued to play at a high level we were able to this year. That’s because of the recruiting efforts of coaches, their development of those players, the sheer talent of the roster one through 85.”

It’s all paying off for the two-time Pac-12 champion Utes. To the victors go the spoils. In a month, Utah is returning to the Rose Bowl. 

Whittingham expressed his appreciation for the fans, who turned out in droves again in Las Vegas. 

“We love our fans. They showed up without a doubt tonight. When we left the field at halftime, that’s when it really hit me, how many fans we had there,” he said. “The roar after we scored on that two-minute drill — we love our fans. I know they’ll show up again at the Rose Bowl. I promise you that.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration at the Pac-12 championship.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration after the Utes defeated USC in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes prevailed, 47-24, and are headed to their second-straight Rose Bowl.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News