Santa Clara, Calif. • He already was banged up before the Pac-12 championship game ever began. And he played, anyway, showing just a small, individual piece of the toughness that defined Utah football all season long.
Britain Covey was hurt and then helped up and off the field after he returned the opening kickoff in the second half on Friday night for 17 yards. He was laid flat, laboring to get up. He clapped his hands as he gathered himself and wobbled to the sideline, gaining a cheer from his teammates and the Utah fans on hand.
Covey injured his knee on the play. He will miss whatever bowl game Utah ends up in.
Considering that Covey is 5-foot-8 and weighs 170 pounds — those numbers are generous — his determination and inspiration were highlights. He never returned to action and ended with one catch for six yards. He’d run the ball three times for 14.
The lasting memory of this defeat will be Covey limping off the field, but urging his teammates on. They couldn’t get a championship won, but they hammered away.
“This is a tough group,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said, afterward. “… They accomplished a lot of things this year, and I’m very proud of them.”
A punt at the end of the half
Utah’s only drive into Washington territory in the first half of Friday’s Pac-12 championship ended strangely.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham elected to let the clock run out with his team at the Washington 45-yard line, rather than have Matt Gay attempt a 62-yard field goal or have Jason Shelley throw a pass into the end zone.
The Utes had reached the Husky 37, before Shelley was sacked on third down. Whittingham made a similar call in the first half of his team's other appearance at Levi's Stadium in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl vs. Indiana.
Whittingham said he never considered a field goal, citing as evidence how Gay’s 53-yarder with the wind, going the other direction, barely cleared the crossbar in the third quarter. And he questioned whether Shelley could throw the ball into the end zone. “As many bad things can come of that as good things,” Whittingham said.
He also pointed out that Utah would receive the second-half kickoff, with a chance to start over offensively.
As everyone involved with Utah's football program kept hearing for a long time, the Utes became the last team from the Pac-12 South team to qualify for the conference championship game.
Utah's challenge Friday night vs. Washington was trying to win the title game in its first appearance, as none of the other South teams had done.
UCLA (twice), Arizona State, Arizona, USC and Colorado all lost to North teams in the first six championship games, before USC broke through with a 31-28 defeat of Stanford last December.
Utah's breakthrough leaves the North's Washington State, Oregon State and California as the only schools that have not won division titles in the eight seasons of the Pac-12's existence.
Washington's roster includes three former Utah high school players, notably sophomore receiver Ty Jones from Provo.
Jones entered the game No. 3 in receptions for the Huskies this season, with 28 catches for 469 yards and a team-high six touchdowns — including a score against Utah in September.
In Friday's second quarter, Jones deflected a pass intended for him and Utah's Javelin Guidry made a diving interception at the Ute 18-yard line.
Freshman linebacker MJ Tafisi, from Alta High, had appeared in three games for Washington. Defensive lineman Sam Taimani, from East, also is a Husky freshman.
The Ute women's volleyball team defeated Denver in three sets Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Provo. Dani Drews led the Utes with 18 kills. Her brothers, Ute football players Jackson and Cody Barton, and her parents will be able see Utah play Saturday in the round of 32.
The Pac-12 champion is likely to meet former Utah coach Urban Meyer in the Rose Bowl, assuming the Buckeyes win Saturday's Big Ten title game and don't qualify for the College Football Playoff. Going into this weekend's games, Meyer ranked first in winning percentage (.851) among active coaches, followed by Washington's Chris Petersen (.812) and Alabama's Nick Saban (.790).
The recent surge of Utah's Kyle Whittingham gave him victories in two-thirds of his games (.670) over 14 seasons.
Each school’s marching band made the trip to Santa Clara and staged pregame and halftime shows. The opportunity was meaningful to Washington’s band, after a scheduled appearance at Washington State last week was canceled. One of the six buses carrying the band to Pullman, Wash., was involved in an accident, causing some injuries. Band members elected to go back home to Seattle, rather than perform in Pullman without the other musicians. The WSU band played the UW fight song that night as the Huskies beat the Cougars to qualify for the title game.