Pasadena, Calif. • As the numbers on the board — Ohio State 48, Utah 45 — shined into the dark shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains at the Rose Bowl on Saturday evening, there was a mix of sadness and gladness in the hearts of the Utes walking off the field, pride intact, a punch absorbed, daubers down, tears flowing.
The 60,000 Utah fans in the stands experienced it, felt it, too.
The Pac-12 champions endured the pain of defeat on this occasion, properly hauling with them, somewhere deep down, fulfillment in what they had heretofore accomplished, but also a strange mix of what had been left out on the iconic field.
It was more than their all. It was what might have been.
Utah had intended to become Rose Bowl champions in 2022.
The Utes had overcome early defeat this season, had faced down tragedy, escaped its clutches, adversity’s grasp, had stared straight into its eyes and triumphantly carried on, had won a major conference title, qualified for the bowl full of roses.
Britain Covey said it this way in the postgame: “This season is a good metaphor for our team … battling back through everything.”
So it was, it did.
All of it done in honoring those who had been lost, those who would never be forgotten, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, beloved teammates, beloved brothers who had moved on to wherever it is that the dearly departed go.
Victory came in their names this season.
What was a loss in the historic Rose Bowl supposed to come in?
Not sure. But come it did.
That’s the joint component to what the Utes so openly declared after the deaths of TJ and AL — that they were playing for something bigger than themselves. They were playing for their friends. Maybe both sides of that deal aren’t recognized or underscored enough. Such a dedication brings with it tremendous amounts of pressure, pressure carried with the task at hand. It’s one thing to lose and face the consequences of self-disappointment. It’s another to lose and turn directly into unfulfilled tribute to those who are gone.
While the Utes wanted no part of the latter, that’s what they got, even with key Ohio State players skipping the game in favor of preparing for the NFL draft.
But it’s not what the Utes should get. Certainly not any kind of sense that their teammates from the Great Beyond were/are disappointed in or with them.
Plumbing the depths of defeat in the here and now, OK. The Utes lost to a high-quality Buckeyes team that would have been playing in the College Football Playoff were it not for a single loss against Michigan. Ohio State is a tough opponent, one to which a loss should bring no shame. If that sounds condescending to some, it isn’t meant to be.
The Utes had one of their most memorable seasons ever.
It just ended the wrong way.
No excuses here. They lost a game they could have won, leading for most of it, leading for most of it by double-digits.
After waiting for more than a century, during most of which they had no opportunity to participate, Utah football finally had its turn in the Rose Bowl, its turn to leave its mark on a tradition that includes some of college football’s all-time greats and all-time ghosts.
That’s the legacy of which the Utes might have been a happy part.
It wasn’t to be — not in victory, anyway.
What’s written in the history books may not have been the main swing thought they had as they approached the tee’d ball against the Buckeyes, that centering instead on the immediate business at hand, but … so let it be done, so let it be written.
For whatever reasons, the Utes couldn’t stir the purposeful defense necessary, and quite enough offense, to get their reward, couldn’t follow up the results that had successfully blessed and bounced them through the season’s back half.
Here are some details on how it happened, from beginning to end:
Utah sent a message that went unheard when it elected to receive after winning the coin toss, getting aggressive, but getting stopped on its first possession. But when the Buckeyes took over deep in their own territory, they went nowhere. Message sent and heard on the other side of the ball. Message heard, again, back the other way when Cam Rising hit Covey for a 19-yard touchdown with less than six minutes gone in the first quarter.
All systems were go.
Rising fired a 12-yard pass to Micah Bernard for Utah’s second TD, still in the first quarter, the Utes going ahead, 14-zip. Up to that point, this game brought back memories of the way the 2008 Ute team kicked Alabama all over the field early on.
Utah was more keen mentally, more motivated, more emotional, more efficient, more angry, more … everything.
It didn’t last.
The Buckeyes, no slouches, stirred themselves early in the second quarter, finishing off a long drive with a score to cut the margin to seven.
The important Utah response, one of many, was impressive.
Overcoming a holding penalty and a recovered fumble, but benefiting from a targeting call against Ohio State, the Utes rolled to their third touchdown on a nine-play, 79-yard march, pumping their lead back to 14 via a Tavion Thomas six-yard run.
Bernard, though, playing on both sides of the ball, filling in for the scant Utah secondary, got beat on a deep ball 27 seconds later to close the gap to seven, again.
Covey then did what he’s done what seems like a thousand times before — he herked-and-jerked, wriggled-and-wiggled, burned-and-churned on a return, this one on a kickoff, for 97 yards to jack Utah’s lead to 28-14. Remarkably, there was still 8:17 left in the first half.
It took Ohio State all of 15 seconds to score again on a 52-yard pass, dicing the Utes’ lead back to just seven.
This was getting ridiculous. It blew past ridiculous. It was bonkers.
But there was more.
About a half-second later came a 62-yard touchdown run by Rising, and it was 35-21, Utah.
Ohio State would have scored again, a pass from C.J. Stroud to Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but the receiver fumbled at Utah’s 3-yard line, recovered by the Utes, finally stopping a drive, such as it was.
The Utes struggled to put pressure on Stroud throughout, and it cost them.
Early in the third quarter, a Clark Phillips interception halted one Ohio State scoring threat. But a dropped snap by Ute punter Michael Williams gave the Buckeyes the ball back at the Utah 11-yard line, which led to an OSU touchdown.
Another Utah answer — this time a field goal after a 59-yard move down the field — put the Utes up 10.
Ohio State replied with … a field goal.
Helmeted ping-pong, anyone?
Even with the back-and-forth, and that long-held lead, it felt as though Utah was barely hanging in, desperately hanging on, shovels-full of turf under their fingernails.
Covering Ohio State’s talented receivers, even with those Buckeye opt-outs already gone, was troublesome. The entire defensive back end struggled mightily. Stroud ended up with 573 passing yards, Smith-Njigba with 347 receiving yards. All told, the Buckeyes gained 683 yards, the Utes 463.
Ohio State took over on downs on the Utes’ first drive of the fourth quarter at its own 29-yard line, promptly accelerating 71 yards to finally knot the score at 38.
From that juncture on, with 10:12 remaining, the outcome was a jump ball.
Reach as they might, slipping here, sliding away there, the Utes looked as though they couldn’t quite grasp it. When Rising was sacked — and hurt and replaced by freshman backup Bryson Barnes — the celebration supposedly was done, wiped out by one final Ohio State drive and TD.
No, it wasn’t.
Barnes led the Utes on an amazing touchdown drive, decorated with a flawless scoring pass to Dalton Kincaid, tying the count back up at 45 with 1:54 left. Whaaaaaaaat?!
Barnes is a freshman walk-on from Milford, a kid from a small high school, from a pig-farming family. Could this be an unlikely showbiz finish?
What was real on this night put no smiles on the Utes’ faces.
Their celebration ended, as the defense failed again, with a Buckeye field goal in the final seconds.
But did it? Did it end? Should it end? Only in this last game, a big one though it was. A hurtful one.
The season — a victory, taken as an inspiring whole — was bigger.
What this all means for Utah is that it now stands atop the Pac-12, uncrowned at the end against the Big Ten. There is work left to do. At the same time, looking back over the road traveled, the Utes have built by way of a steady climb a football program to be respected by all.
Indeed, it could have been capped better. The normally-reliable defense sucked.
There are those who might have considered Ohio State vulnerable to an upset, given that the CFP spot escaped them. But the Buckeyes showed up with force.
The Utes did, as well. They just weren’t quite good enough. If they were, then they were not on Saturday evening. Only they themselves know which it really was.
Either way, religious or not, each of the Utes should believe that TJ and AL were there on the sideline with them, cheering them on, stressing the gladness, not the sadness, as they walked off the field, pride intact, punch absorbed, daubers down, tears flowing.
Who could argue with that? For certain, nobody wanted to.
Said Kyle Whittingham: “Warriors don’t quit.”
The Utes never did.