Santa Clara, Calif. • As the Utes left the field after their last win, having clinched a second-straight Pac-12 South title and qualified for the league championship game against Oregon, one of them yelled to himself, to his teammates, to anyone within shouting distance, to the world, “Ain’t nothing new here. No, no, no. Ain’t nothing new. Nothing new. No.”
On account of the fact that Utah suffered a loss back in September, and has been so good for so long since, the Utes have become accustomed to what Friday night’s game represents.
Air to breathe.
Food to eat.
A game to win.
A fate to make.
That is their norm, their reality, their necessity.
And to understand that, you must consider what is new.
You must go back to August, before any of Utah’s success this season commenced, at least in the form of actualized wins.
That was when the Utes set their tethered wills and their jaws to making 2019 different, a notion that started to emerge even months and years before that. Everyone, including all the coaches and players, were fully aware that this season would be a kind of crescendo for Utah football. So many talented seniors, and maybe a junior or two, would be taking their final lap around Rice-Eccles Stadium, including guys like Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss, Bradlee Anae and Demari Simpkins, Leki Fotu and John Penisini, Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson.
“They’re a special group,” Kyle Whittingham said.
“They are the seniors,” said sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe. “They lead and we follow them.”
What has transpired this season is the exact reason some of those guys returned after last year, holding off the call of the NFL to handle yet-unhandled business. They remember making the title game 12 months ago, and the abject disappointment that followed losing to Washington. They returned to do something no Utah team has ever done — win the Pac-12 and qualify for the Rose Bowl, and maybe more.
That’s been the mission and, for them, the expectation since.
“Our team is going to be great,” said Blackmon, and that was in the second week of August.
“We have a special team, a team that can be great,” said Fotu, that same week.
To make that expectation real, in their own minds and in the minds of others, the Utes have had to win — every single weekend. When they lost to USC at the Coliseum on that Friday night in September, exactly 12 weeks removed from Friday’s championship game, it made slight concession, but absolutely required no more goof-ups.
Nobody knows that more than the guys in the crimson pads and hats.
There is no room for anything but victory.
After the Utes finished the regular season with eight straight wins, dusting and dominating most of their opponents, Whittingham said winning a Pac-12 title was the next step for his team, for his entire program. Any defeat, right up through Saturday night’s win over Colorado, would have doomed that step.
Pressure, then, has become a companion to the Utes, a friend.
Same thing against Oregon, the biggest threat Utah has faced. And the coaches and players know it.
“We’re going to practice harder this week than they are,” Anae said.
Before the Utes had even started in on their amplified prep on a short week in the run-up, Whittingham could and did break down the various strengths of the Ducks on offense and defense.
And while those breakdowns are important for the Utes to press into their brains, bodies and souls, what’s even more important is their ability and willingness to achieve what they’ve said they’ve done all along — dial in and dive down on themselves, requiring of the collective group to bring out its best efforts.
“It’s all about finishing,” said Anae.
If the seniors lead and the others follow, the Utes not only will accomplish what they’ve never before done, they will set a standard for Utah football in two directions — in the years to come and in the years gone by.
They will be the best Utah team ever. They’re already the most talented. But the difference between those two designations is significant.
If they lose, they’re just another good Ute team, one of many placed in a crowded trophy case, headed now to another bowl game relative few care about.
That’s exactly what they’ve faced down and put on the line every week, from August until now — air to breathe, food to eat, a game to win, a fate to make — until they finish up wherever those best efforts or efforts short thereof take them.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.