It was almost like a scene out of a Disney movie.

A kid that grew up on a pig farm in a tiny, obscure town in southern Utah replaces the starting quarterback in the “Granddaddy of Them All,” in the fourth quarter, with the outcome still on the line, and, improbably, throws a game-tying touchdown pass. 

For freshman walk-on Bryson Barnes, what a place, and what a time, to take his first meaningful, competitive collegiate snaps — at the Rose Bowl, on New Year’s Day, against Ohio State, in front of 87,842 fans in attendance and 16.6 million television viewers. And he ended up etching his name in Utah football lore. 

Both figuratively and literally, it was a long way from his hometown of Milford, Utah, (population: 1,731) in Beaver County.

Watching it months later, Barnes looks unflappable. He seems as calm as a summer breeze with a tornado of pressure swirling all around him. But in the Rose Bowl, he rose to the occasion.

“There was no time to be nervous. It was, go get it done. We had the seniors there and I didn’t want to let them down,” Barnes recalled recently during the first day of spring practices. “I didn’t want them to be like, ‘Oh, here comes the backup. All hope is lost.’ I wanted to give us something. That’s what that drive ended up showing.”

It wasn’t just that Barnes was thrust into that moment, on the biggest stage, it’s what he did with that moment that will be remembered.

There would be no Hollywood ending for Barnes and the Utes in the Rose Bowl — OSU’s Noah Ruggles had his own magical moment by kicking a game-winning 19-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining for a 48-45 victory — but that doesn’t detract from what he accomplished. 

Despite what Barnes did in Pasadena, despite the fact that when the Utah football team was honored at the State Capitol in February and legislators wanted to meet him — “Where’s Bryson?” they asked because he didn’t attend the festivities — Barnes still doesn’t have a scholarship. 

Utah backup quarterback Bryson Barnes prepares to take a snap during 2022 spring camp at the University of Utah. After coming on in relief of an injured Cam Rising in the Rose Bowl, Barnes now finds himself battling to be Rising’s backup this season. | University of Utah Athletics

Yet he is battling for the backup job behind Cam Rising this spring with Ja’Quinden Jackson.

What will Barnes do for the sequel? Does he have more surprises in store after what he did on Jan. 1, 2022, at the Rose Bowl?

‘I just had a weird feeling’

With the score tied at 38-apiece with 10:05 remaining in the game, Rising took the snap on first down, on a play-action pass, and did his best to elude a fierce pass rush.

Rising was trying to make a play, like he had successfully done so many times during the season, but this time, as he tried to throw the ball away, he was dragged to the turf by blitzing Buckeyes safety Kourt Williams II for the first, and only, sack of the day.

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Rising’s helmet violently hit the ground and he lay flat on his back, his body stiffened. His arms raised momentarily.

Tight end Dalton Kincaid immediately bent down to check on his quarterback and waved to the sidelines for trainers and doctors to attend to Rising, who was lying motionless. 

“I got a concussion, got knocked out,” Rising would say months later.  

As the stadium turned quiet, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham walked onto the field to see his team’s leader. 

Barnes watched everything from the sideline.

“I was prepared to go in,” Barnes remembered. “When I saw (Rising’s) arm go up, I knew what was going to happen next. Then it was just, go out there and get it done.”

Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes wearing white passes during the game against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Barnes threw a game-tying touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes passes during Rose Bowl game against Ohio State in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Barnes threw a game-tying touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

According to the depth chart, and pretty much everyone’s mind outside the program, Jackson was Rising’s backup. Since Jackson was listed as the backup, most presumed he would enter the game. But Barnes, a 6-foot-1, 204-pounder, was actually the backup, unbeknownst to the public. 

Most people, including many Ute fans, had never heard of Bryson Barnes before that day. He had seen action in mop-up duty against Weber State and Colorado, handing the ball off late in the game with the outcome decided, but he had never thrown a pass in a Division I game.

So he jogged onto the field and went under center with 9:46 remaining. 

“Welcome to the Rose Bowl, Bryson Barnes,” ABC’s Chris Fowler intoned during the broadcast.

“I did know that if Cam were to go down, I would be the next guy up,” Barnes said recently. “That whole bowl prep week, I just had a weird feeling that I was going in in the biggest game Utah has ever played in. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ Not that that changed my preparation leading up to the game. You’ve got to prepare that way regardless because that could have happened the first week he started against Washington State. It could have happened at any given moment. You’ve just got to be prepared for when that moment comes.”

On second-and-17 with the ball at the Utah 27-yard line, Barnes took his first snap. He handed off to T.J. Pledger, then on third down he handed off to Tavion Thomas before the Utes were forced to punt. 

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On Ohio State’s ensuing series, quarterback C.J. Stroud led a drive capped by a beautiful 30-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba to lift the Buckeyes to a 45-38 advantage.

On that drive, Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist, eclipsed the 500-yard passing mark for the game, a Rose Bowl record, and also broke the Rose Bowl record for touchdown passes. 

Britain Covey turned in a strong kickoff return, giving the Utes the ball at their own 43-yard line with 4:14 remaining

‘What a story from nowhere!’

The previous August, Utah staged a quarterback battle between Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer and Rising. With all the focus on them, little attention was paid to Jackson. And Barnes was the forgotten man on the depth chart. 

Then, just a few weeks into the season, with the Utes mired in a 1-2 start, Brewer opted to leave the program and Rising took over as the starter, and he guided Utah to its first Pac-12 title and its first Rose Bowl appearance.

During the season, Barnes kept learning and working hard, preparing as if he were going to play. 

With 4:14 left in the Rose Bowl, it was apparent that Rising, the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback, and Southern California native, would not be returning to the field. Barnes would have the keys of the Utes offense for the remainder of the game.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes celebrates his touchdown throw to tight end Dalton Kincaid during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On first down during Barnes’ second drive, he handed off again to Thomas for a short pickup.

On second-and-8, Thomas ran for two more yards. Then on third-and-six, an obvious passing situation, Barnes threw a pass — his first pass attempt of his career — to Covey in the flat. Blanketed by OSU cornerback Cameron Brown, Covey dove for the ball and officials whistled pass interference, giving the Utes new life.

On first-and-10 at the Buckeye 49, Barnes gave the ball to Thomas again for a one-yard gain.

One play later, Barnes completed an eight-yard pass in the flat to Covey, who immediately ran out of bounds with 2:27 remaining and a yard short of a first down.

Then on third down, Barnes executed a quarterback keeper, wrapping his arms around the football like a newborn piglet, and diving for a first down at the Ohio State 30. 

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On first-and-10, Barnes, standing in shotgun formation, clapped his hands once, caught the chest-high snap, and launched a pass to Kincaid. The pass was a little underthrown and as Kincaid came back for the ball, an OSU defensive back crashed into him. The pass interference call gave Utah the ball at the Buckeye 15-yard line with 2:00 on the clock.

On the next play, Barnes dropped back and connected with Kincaid in the back of the end zone to tie the game once again.

“What a story from nowhere!” Fowler exulted on the broadcast. “Bryson Barnes comes in and leads Utah to a game-tying touchdown!”

Said Whittingham in the postgame press conference: “Had an inclination to go for two right then, but too much time left on the clock. Had there been under a minute, would have gone for two. That was the mindset. They had a full two minutes, and the analytics said not to do it either at that point, so we just went for one. But Cam will be OK, and proud of Bryson Barnes for what he did.”

Ohio State got the ball back and as Shroud was marching his explosive offense downfield, Barnes was on the sideline, wearing a headset, hoping for overtime and one more chance to get into the game. 

Alas, Shroud, who threw for a Rose Bowl record 573 yards, just three yards short of the all-time bowl record of 576 set by BYU’s Ty Detmer against Penn State in 1989, put OSU in scoring position again, culminating in Ruggles’ game-winner.  

And the Utes lost in an instant classic by three points to the Buckeyes.

In his two series, Barnes completed 2 of 2 passes for 23 yards and a touchdown — in his first real collegiate action, in the Rose Bowl. 

“He did everything right. It showed in that game. That’s why he was so successful when he came in,” Rising said of Barnes. “When I watched it … I was amazed. I was, ‘Wow. That was awesome.’ … I was so happy to see him go in there and excel like that. He’s doing a great job and he continues to grow each and every day. So it’s good.”

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“Couldn’t be more proud of what Bryson Barnes did when he came into a tough situation and led the team right down the field for the tying touchdown,” Whittingham said later.

From small town to the big time

Growing up, Barnes and his family raised about 12,000 pigs in a barn in the southern Utah town of Milford.

“We have a contract with a bigger company that raises hogs. We’ve got the nursery barn,” he explained. “Little pigs, when they’re babies until they’re 70 pounds we send them out. That’s kind of how I am. Just a small town, labor worker type of guy.”

Milford High’s Bryson Barnes escapes the tackle of Duchesne’s Jack Roberts during the 1A championship game at Eccles Coliseum at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

Just because nobody had heard of Barnes didn’t mean he didn’t have ability. 

As a quarterback at Milford High, Barnes completed 57% of his passes, and threw for 11,540 yards with 137 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. He also rushed 542 times for 1,972 yards and 46 TDs.

Barnes set a new state record for most touchdown passes in a career and Milford captured two state championships.

It was quite a journey just going from Milford to the University of Utah, a Pac-12 school. 

“It’s crazy to even think about,” Barnes said. 

Milford High, seventh through 12th grade, has 200 students. 

“It’s unheard of but to me, it’s all I ever knew. Then as I grew up, I went to football camps and I see these guys from these bigger schools and I’m going, ‘Oh, there’s not that big of a talent gap,’” Barnes said. “‘I can play with these guys.’ That’s where a lot of my confidence was able to come from.

“You look at 1A, you even see a 3A guy, and you think he’s got something on me because he’s 3A. That’s not always true. I’m not going to lie. Jaxson Dart (formerly at USC, now at Ole Miss) coming out of Corner Canyon, there are different possibilities coming from a big school that may look at a small town as inferior. But that’s not really the case.”

Though he still doesn’t have a scholarship, Barnes will continue to work hard and hone his craft this spring. 

Whittingham confirmed last week that Barnes is still a walk-on.

But Barnes doesn’t define himself by his walk-on status. 

“I don’t really see myself that way. I always keep in mind, what am I doing that the other QBs ain’t? Everybody’s putting in the extra work. Everybody is doing the extra stuff outside,” he said. “It’s, what are you doing different that’s going to set yourself apart?

“At the end of the day, if you’re doing the same thing that your competition — whether it’s your teammates or battling for a spot or Oregon State or USC — what are you doing different that they’re not. If you’re doing the same thing, then you’re going to have the same results and you can’t expect to be better than them if you’re doing the same thing.”

With experience in the Rose Bowl on his resume, Barnes continues to battle for the backup job. Certainly, the confidence he gained from playing in the Rose Bowl will help him moving forward. 

“That definitely reinforces it because you put in all that work as a backup,” he said. “You don’t see the field but you’re still putting in that work and you’re getting better as the season goes. It was just nice to see that work that I’ve been doing finally pay off.”

Despite the loss to Ohio State, the previously anonymous Barnes left Pasadena showing what he’s capable of — in the Rose Bowl. 

It was like something out of a Disney movie.