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Two single snapshots taken and selected from a stack of a thousand memorable images captured among the Utes — enough to fill an entire photo album … no, 10 photo albums — stood out on an historic Friday night of football in Las Vegas.
One was a picture of the happiness splashed across Kyle Whittingham’s face at the Pac-12 championship game’s end, a 38-10 Utah crushing of Oregon, the other caught the emerging outward expression of a joyful prayer Devin Lloyd held deep in his heart.
Victory was a sweet, sweet thing for every Ute everywhere, but especially for these two Utes here.
That sweetness smoothed not only the creases of concern etched long ago into and onto Whittingham’s mug, but also lifted the burden off his back, highlighting and punctuating an ambitious, arduous 11-year climb to the top of Pac-12 football.
That’s precisely where he and his Utes stood, at last, winning their first Pac-12 title, and the coach’s postgame facial expression fell somewhere between complete reward and absolute relief.
Billy Shakespeare might have been right when he wrote, “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown,” and the altered version in modern speak, “Heavy is the head ….” But, damn, that crown sure felt fine and light on the coach’s head now.
For Kyle, it was good to be king.
And Lloyd, the game’s MVP, was the kingmaker. More on him in a minute.
“It’s a great feeling,” Whittingham said. “And it’s something we’ve been working toward for a long time … ever since we joined the league.”
On this night, their work was done, the Utes having gone from joining to ruling.
And as Utah downed the Ducks in the competition before the coronation, after having made it to the league championship game twice before only to get beat, it utilized a terrific mix of offense and defense, of running and passing, of closing and tackling, of pressuring and intercepting.
Whittingham had said he wanted to hit Oregon right from jump, and that’s exactly what the Utes did. They punched the Ducks — hard.
They went up, 23-zip in the first half, with more emotion, more enthusiasm, more efficiency and more effectiveness than anything Oregon could conjure. More physicality, too. Utah took away the Ducks’ run, took away their pass, and Oregon couldn’t figure out any other way to attempt to advance the ball.
“They played well,” said Ducks coach Mario Cristobal. “We certainly hurt ourselves, as well.”
Indeed, some, like Cristobal and likely their fans, might say Oregon played poorly and that that was on the Ducks, that was their fault. But none of this just sort of happened. As is usually the case when one team seems to play beneath itself, the reason should be directly traced — and credited — to the excellence of the other.
Utah was excellent. And on account of that, Oregon crumbled.
“We were locked in,” Lloyd told the TV cameras. “… We were full of energy.”
And it was no fluke. It was reiteration.
What was seen at Rice-Eccles Stadium just 13 days prior — a dominant 31-point win — was seen again, this time a 28-pointer. Utah clearly was not just the better side, but the dominant side. These two teams could play 10 times, a hundred times, a billion, and the Utes would win every time.
That’s the way it looked, anyway.
They played like they were one of college football’s best teams.
And maybe they are.
At the conclusion, as Whittingham grinned, it was easy to get a running start on all of this, to reflect back on the day Utah was officially invited into the Pac-12, the day when politicians and commissioners and administrators and boosters and big shots and fans and media, too, gathered in a large suite at Rice-Eccles to hear the news.
It wasn’t as much a press conference as it was a celebratory fan-fest, what with crimson-colored balloons draped over balconies, school officials ecstatic, excitement and applause and promise in the air, along with a slew of laughs and backslaps.
A quick glance around the room revealed only one individual who was not full-on smiling.
He wanted to. He kind of did. But there was a grimace laced through the grin. Whittingham knew what the consequences of the elevation in Utah’s status would bring — more money for the program, more money for the university, more money for him. More exposure. More room at the top end for a football team that had theretofore achieved some fantastic things, such as they were, but that would be forced to grow.
It meant something else, as well. More pressure, more responsibility to guide his program from the G5 level to the P5, going up against better talent, better teams and more trouble.
Whittingham sensed what was coming and also, best case, if he did his job all proper, what might come …
A victory on a Friday night in December against a team like Oregon, with a Rose Bowl berth waiting in the winner’s circle.
Well. That’s what he got. Utah is going to the Grandaddy of Them All.
Some want to downgrade that bowl now that the College Football Playoff exists, but for anyone who has been to the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s, they know different.
It’s a football festival with a parade attached to it that draws upwards of two million people to it. It’s a sweet reward for a football team and its fans.
Whittingham was influenced enough by LaVell Edwards to establish as his No. 1 goal before every season winning a conference championship.
As mentioned, he’s come close before.
He’s taken the Utes from a Mountain West championship to a Pac-12 title.
He may have goals yet unfulfilled, may want, after a long, distinguished career, to stick around for another season or two or three, but … from here on out, it’s gravy — make that icing — on the cake.
Whittingham will never look at it that way because if he did, he definitely would be done. Competition is the thing, after all.
But his face, with the crown atop it, told the story on Friday night. Reward, relief. Appreciation, too — for his assistants and especially for his players.
Pan that camera now over to Lloyd, the Utes’ linebacker and leader who could have been playing in the NFL this season had he not chosen to return, turning down his money to realize his reasoning for coming back — to win a title.
“I’d never won a championship,” he said. “I wanted one.”
He has now. He has one now.
“I’m just grateful for the journey,” he said.
Lloyd sat down and told me his life story last week, and everything he’d channeled through his young football career, his developed talents, his natural tenacity, his obvious toughness, all of it was on display against the Ducks.
He looked like what John Madden once called a “football player’s football player.”
Lloyd’s version of the same: “I feel like I was born to play football.”
Is there any doubt? No.
Leadership and tackles galore, a pick-six that gave the Utes a 14-zip first-quarter lead, and the celebration afterward that shouted to anybody watching what all this meant to the man who allowed himself two compliments regarding his best qualities: “Hard work and instincts.”
There was one other thing — his faith.
God obviously has no preference for one competitor winning over another, whether they’re a Duck or a Ute, and while Lloyd knows that, he also said he talks to the Man Upstairs “every single day.” It’s part of how he thinks, who he is. And that has powered him through tribulation and triumph over his young life. A glance skyward signified his gratitude on this occasion.
“I’m so blessed to be in this position,” he said afterward.
So, the Utes are champions, royalty of their realm. They passed for more yards that Oregon, ran for more yards, out-gained the Ducks by 140 yards. They had seven more first downs. They possessed the ball longer. They led from start to finish. They won by those 28 points, and the margin felt like it could have been 128. They allowed no room for doubt.
Utah is the best team in the Pac-12, heading now to You-Know-Where.
Pasadena, the town known, fittingly enough, as “the Crown City.”
And to the Utes that feels … how would you say it? … good? … great? … glorious?
Being king is all three. And with apologies to Billy Shakespeare, the head wearing the bedazzled hat is neither uneasy, nor heavy.
The expressions on the Utes’ faces made that clear.