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Resilience helped Utah earn an ‘amazing opportunity’ to play in its first Rose Bowl

Utah's Devin Lloyd celebrates alongside coach Kyle Whittingham, Cameron Rising and Britain Covey.
Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, second from left, celebrates alongside coach Kyle Whittingham, left, quarterback Cameron Rising and wide receiver Britain Covey (18) after the Utes defeated Oregon 38-10 to win the Pac-12 Conference championship on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas.
(Chase Stevens / Associated Press)

Since taking the reins at Utah in 2004, head coach Kyle Whittingham has experienced a wide range of highs and lows during the Utes’ journey to their first Rose Bowl.

The Southern California native is familiar with the significance of the oldest bowl game in college football. With 11 bowl wins as a head coach and the second highest bowl winning percentage among active coaches, Whittingham will get his first professional taste of the Rose Bowl stage that local schools USC and UCLA aspire to reach each year.

Utah’s rise to the national spotlight has been marked by personal and professional loss. The obstacles of the past 12 months have transformed into motivation, with the No. 11 Utes (10-3) now focused on taking down No. 6 Ohio State (10-2) in the Rose Bowl to cap the season Saturday afternoon.

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“We have to have patience,” said Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “Utah is very well respected, and we’ve spent a number of years earning that respect. We’re still not a destination program, according to the rest of the country. We have to be able to develop.”

The Utes broke through the Pac-12 South with an 8-1 conference record and beat Oregon 38-10 in the Pac-12 championship game.

The impressive finish in the division wasn’t without heartache, as cornerback Aaron Lowe was killed in a shooting on Sept. 26, less than a year after teammate Ty Jordan died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Utah and Ohio State say they don’t mind passing on Rose Bowl traditions, including steak dinner at Lawry’s, to avoid COVID canceling the Rose Bowl.

“It wasn’t the start we wanted, but that didn’t affect what our goal was. Our goal was to win the Pac-12,” said Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell. “I think in that moment when we all came together and shared what we [thought] what Ty and Aaron would have wanted us to do, that’s where we all clicked together.”

Utah will take the field on Saturday with six players who declared for the upcoming NFL draft but still opted to participate in the Rose Bowl. Offensive lineman Nick Ford, defensive end Mika Tafua, tight end Cole Fotheringham, running back TJ Pledger, wide receiver Britain Covey and Sewell headline Utah’s top talent bound for the next level.

Ohio State, on the other hand, will be without top players who declared for the draft and are sitting out the bowl game. Wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, defensive tackle Haskell Garrett and offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere opted out to avoid injury that could impact their draft status.

“I know one thing,” said Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig of Ohio State’s roster. “When one guy leaves, they got another good player ready to step in and take his spot.”

The Buckeyes are coming off a lopsided loss to Michigan. Ohio State mustered only 64 rushing yards against Michigan’s defense, a remarkably low number for a team that is ranked in the top 50 in college football in rushing yards per game.

“We all feel like we were backed against the wall coming out of that last one,” said Ohio State secondary coach Matt Barnes. “Now we have a chance to regroup and practice hard and we’re more motivated than ever. We’ll need to be, because again, it’s a very, very good football team. Very talented, extremely well coached and very physical.”

Cincinnati seniors are focused on extending their dream season during their College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against powerhouse Alabama.

Utah has neutralized opposing offenses well this season. The defense limited teams to an average of 122.5 rushing yards per game, with only 11 touchdowns scored off 439 rushing attempts.

“For us, it’s stop the run and have fun on third downs,” Tafua said. “Once you stop the run, you can get after the quarterback a little bit. [Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud] gets the ball out really quick. It should be a good challenge for us.”

It took the Utes a decade to reach the Rose Bowl after joining the Pac-12 and now they are pushing for a win that would further bolster their national reputation.

“[Our] mindset is to play the best we can in the ‘Granddaddy of Them All,’ ” said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. “This is an amazing opportunity for the program, for the university, to be the first team to go to the Rose Bowl.”


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