With a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, Utah football has learned from its past mistakes vs. Oregon

Captains Britain Covey and Cam Rising stress the mental aspect of preparing for the Pac-12 title game

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) tries to push past the Buffaloes defense as the University of Utah hosts the Colorado Buffaloes in Pac-12 football, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Britain Covey remembers the shock he felt.

Covey did not play in 2019 Pac-12 championship game. He wasn’t even on the field during that 37-15 loss to Oregon, but rather up in the box at Levi’s Stadium. The slot receiver/return specialist had injured his right knee in the previous season’s Pac-12 title game, a 10-3 loss to Washington, rehabilitated to the point of getting back in time for the 2019 opener, but ultimately decided after four games that the knee wasn’t healthy enough.

So, on Dec. 6, 2019, Covey had a bird’s-eye view to see things go awry for the Utes, who were then No. 5 in the College Football Playoff after running roughshod over the Pac-12 for two months.

As Utah, outright champion of the Pac-12 South for the third consecutive non-COVID season, returns to the Pac-12 championship game Friday night versus Oregon (6 p.m., ABC) what went wrong two years ago should at least be held up as a learning experience, both for the veteran guys who were there and the young guys who are stepping onto this stage for the first time.

“I remember just being pretty astounded and shocked at the result of the first half,” Covey said this week.

The Ducks went into the locker room at halftime with a 20-0 lead that night in 2019.

“We got outside of ourselves,” Covey continued. “Route depths were off, pass-set blocks were different than they’d been all year. I think the moment was big, but you don’t want the moment to be so big that you psych yourself out, and I think that happened a little bit. I think it’s good that we have some guys that have been in some games like this. I think it’s good that two weeks ago (against then-No. 3 Oregon) was a big game.”

Those moments in 2018 and 2019 where a trip to the Rose Bowl was on the line were indeed big, but the benefit of that will bear out Friday night as a handful of Utes will be playing in the title game for the second or, in some cases, third time.

All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd will play in his third Pac-12 championship game on Friday night, as will the Pac-12 leader in sacks, Mika Tafua. All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe is slated to start in his third title game, while another veteran tight end, Cole Fotheringham will play in his third. Fourth-year wide receiver Solomon Enis saw the field in 2018 and 2019, as did free safety Vonte Davis, but what about the guys who have played huge roles for Utah this fall who were not on the field in 2018 and 2019?

Cam Rising transferred to Utah in January 2019, but was not eligible to play that season. Rising’s 2019 season consisted of running the scout team, while spending home games up in the box with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Like Covey, Rising was not on the field in Santa Clara for the 2019 Pac-12 title game. Rising wasn’t even in the same time zone that night. Instead, he was at his apartment in Salt Lake City, watching Oregon decimate Utah’s national championship hopes on television.

Rising echoed much of what Covey thinks about that night from afar.

“There seemed to be a lot of miscues, we lost a lot of our football fundamentals, a lot of what we do, and it ended up looking sloppy,” Rising said.

The fourth-year sophomore quarterback noted that earlier this year, he sat down with teammates and reviewed the film from the 2019 title game. That exercise only drove home the notion that making sure the basics, the fundamentals, the little things are being done properly during practice this week.

To that end, Covey said Monday that he and Rising, the only two of the program’s five captains who play offense, are stressing everyone to do everything right this week. That includes diving into film and analyzing this Ducks team, which Utah thrashed at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 20, but then looked more like itself last week in a Pac-12 North-clinching win over Oregon State.

Covey took it a step further Monday night, getting into what Friday will entail in terms of the game within the game, especially given that Utah and Oregon will be meeting for the second time in 13 days, this time with much higher stakes.

“It is just as mental, if not more mental, than it is physical,” Covey said. “You’re not going to get better physically in one week, but whatever, if you can improve 5%, 10% mentally this week, that’s going to show up on game day. That’s one thing I learned from the first two, how mental this game is. It’s like a chess match.”