Las Vegas • A sea of red welcomed the University of Utah football program to its destiny.
An engaged, full-throated, pro-Utes crowd showed up Friday night for the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium. Thousands of them. They flew into McCarran Airport across Thursday and Friday, they made the 400-mile drive south on Interstate-15, they all had one goal, and they accomplished it.
Allegiant Stadium was Rice-Eccles South on Friday night.
With the Utah faithful out in full force, they were rewarded with a performance for the ages. Utah took the lead on its opening drive, its defense was stifling, and the second half was largely a formality as the Utes registered a 38-10 victory in front of 56,511.
In its 11th season as a member of the Pac-12, Utah (10-3) is through to its first Rose Bowl, which will be played in its traditional New Year’s Day slot (3 p.m. ESPN) at the iconic 92,542-seat venue.
“If you had told me after three games, we’d be here right now, I would have said you’re crazy,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Indeed, few could have predicted this when the Utes went 1-2 against a non-conference schedule of Weber State, BYU and San Diego State.
“It’s really surreal right now, it’s really starting to come to me,” Devin Lloyd said after being named MVP with seven tackles, five of them solo, and an interception return for a touchdown. “I’m just so excited for everyone in there. They sacrificed for nine months, gave everything they have.”
Just as it did in the first meeting between these two teams 13 days ago, a 38-7 Utah win that knocked the then-No. 3 Ducks out of College Football Playoff contention, the Utes dominated the Ducks in the first half.
Up, 14-0, and having absorbed a couple of Cam Rising interceptions, the defense stood up all night. Oregon’s six first-half drives netted just 53 total yards. Three of those six drives accounted for six yards or fewer as Oregon passed midfield just twice.
Nursing that lead, the key stretch of the first half came when Utah took the ball back with 4:04 before halftime. The Utes got their rushing attack going, marching 74 yards across 12 plays and 3:37, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass over the middle from Cam Rising to Dalton Kincaid for a 20-0 lead.
“They won their matchups, both from a player standpoint and a coaching standpoint,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said.
Running back Tavion Thomas did much of the early work on that drive as Utah methodically got its run game going, but Rising and Kincaid made the two big plays at the end. A 29-yard pass from Rising to Kincaid two plays before the touchdown came on third-and-14 and set the Utes up fresh downs at the 11.
Rising finished the night 15-for-24 for 170 yards, a touchdown and the two interceptions, while being asked to do a little more than he has been in recent weeks when Thomas and the offensive line have been the stars of Utah’s offense for the better part of the last six weeks.
An inexplicable Anthony Brown pass on the next Oregon drive was picked off along the sideline by Malone Mataele, setting the Utes up inside the Oregon 40-yard line with eight seconds left in the half.
That short drive yielded a 50-yard Jadon Redding field goal to send Utah into halftime leading, 23-0.
Utah took a 7-0 lead on its opening drive, the teams traded punts, then Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Devin Lloyd made his presence known.
On second-and-10 from the Oregon 25, Lloyd read Oregon quarterback Brown’s eyes, then stepped in front of a pass, intercepting it and taking it back 34 yards for his second pick-six of the season and a 14-0 Utes lead at the 4:16 mark of the first quarter.
Nursing that lead, Utah overcame the two Rising interceptions, one coming on a play where Ducks linebacker Noah Sewell jumped a route, and the other where Thorpe Award finalist Verone McKinley III plucked a wobbly pass out of the air after Rising got crushed in the pocket by defensive tackle Kristian Williams.
Attention will now turn to Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game as Utah awaits its Rose Bowl opponent. If Michigan beats Iowa, the Wolverines are likely off to the College Football Playoff. In that case, the Rose Bowl would be left to select the highest-ranked Big Ten team to face the Utes. That would likely be Ohio State. A Hawkeyes win would send them to Pasadena.