Utah football players are embracing the finale of a tumultuous season by vowing to enjoy their game in Vegas

Given the sheer volume of injuries to key players the Utes endured, their 8-4 year should be viewed as a success, regardless of the expectations they began with. Now, the players intend to make the most of their coming bowl appearance.

An 8-4 season and a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl is not what the Utah football team was envisioning when the season began, but it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering all the injury-depleted Utes went through.

Naturally, they have mixed feelings about how things turned out. But they are trying to shed their ambivalence and embrace their situation.

“I’m so grateful that we have a bowl game. [Though] I think it’s tough because we’re comparing it to two Rose Bowls, back-to-back,” linebacker Karene Reid said on Thursday evening. “But we still came out with a really strong winning record. And I’m here for it anytime we play in a bowl game.”

Now that they’ve returned from their Thanksgiving break and have their first couple bowl-prep practices under their belts, Utah’s players are all-in on gearing up for facing Northwestern at Allegiant Stadium on Dec. 23.

Some of them even view the Wildcats as something of a mirror image — despite being a bit fuzzy on Northwestern’s geographical details.

“Great offensive line, great team — they’re kinda like another Utah, but … where are they at? The East Coast, right?” defensive tackle Junior Tafuna said of the Chicago-based program. “I’d say they’re like Utah, there’s a lot of similar things we do — our offense and their offense both run the ball. They’re a great team overall and we’re excited for the challenge.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Defensive tackle Junior Tafuna speaks with reporters at Rice Eccles Stadium after the team was given pickup trucks by the Crimson Collective name, image and likeness organization in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

And the Utes do view the game as a challenge.

For starters, they’ve been playing short-handed for a while now, with season-ending injuries at various points of the year to such key contributors as Cam Rising, Brant Kuithe, Micah Bernard, Jonah Elliss, Logan Fano, Lander Barton, Mycah Pittman, Thomas Yassmin, and Chris Curry. Brandon Rose and Johnny Maea suffered injuries early and perhaps could have returned to play at some point, but did not, so as to preserve potential medical redshirts.

And now, on top of all that, Utah has seen talented weapons such as quarterback Nate Johnson and receiver Mikey Matthews enter the transfer portal. (Bryson Barnes also has entered the portal, but will play in the bowl game for the Utes.) Meanwhile, top wideout Devaughn Vele, and starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki all have announced their intention to enter the NFL draft.

Reid noted that the silver lining to having so many players injured this season is it means plenty of down-the-roster guys won’t be seeing action for the first time in the bowl game, and there’s already been trust established.

Still, following the break, the past few days have been about getting everyone present back up to speed.

“It’s been good — seeing the guys that you missed, seeing the guys that are here. It’s always fun playing with new guys, trying to get them going,” said cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn. “… I mean, to be honest, it’s just next man up, you know? I hate to see the guys leave, but the guys that are going to the next level, getting their chance, I’m proud of them. I still love them at the end of the day, but it really it’s next-man-up mentality over here.”

And in the Utes’ view, there remains plenty for everyone to prove, both collectively and individually.

For starters, several members of the team noted Utah’s four-bowl game losing streak, in the ’22 season Rose Bowl, ‘21 season Rose Bowl, ‘19 season Alamo Bowl, and ‘18 season Holiday Bowl, respectively.

They don’t intend to let the skid reach five.

“We haven’t won a bowl game — we’re definitely eager to get our first one,” said Tafuna.

Meanwhile, the defensive unit as a whole is keen to remind people of the reputation they earned early in the season, before injuries and a couple of late games gone awry took much of the shine off.

“Man, I say all the time, this is one of the best defenses I’ve been a part of,” said Reid. “And it’s just tough because I don’t know if we’ll be remembered [that way] because of our record.”

Meanwhile, some of the players are going into the game with chips on their shoulders.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zemaiah Vaughn, in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Vaughn was thought to be a candidate to declare for the draft, but instead announced his return, saying he intends to prove his doubters wrong and himself right.

“I’m still a junior on the field, so I just thought it would be a smart decision to play out my senior year and better my draft stock,” he said. “I really want to show that I’m better than what I showed [this season]. I want everybody to see that I’m not just a late-rounder, but I can be a top guy.”

So it is that the Utes are coming together to make the best of the Las Vegas Bowl.

It’s not what they originally set their sights on, but now that it’s theirs, they intend to enjoy it.

“You gotta take every day for what it is and cherish every single game,” said Tafuna. “… If we’re not celebrating each other, the game is kinda pointless. If the team aspect wasn’t there, it’d be miserable. But I’m glad that Utah is a place where we have that, where everybody celebrates each other’s wins, that we’re all just a big family.”

Losing yet more members of their extended family hurts, but they understand.

And Reid noted that the team that’s best able to acknowledge then set aside all the peripheral goings-on, all the potential distractions, will be poised to emerge victorious.

If there’s one thing these Utes are good at now, it’s living with being short-handed and moving on to the next thing.

“We’ve been callused, we’ve been through a lot of adversity — things just keep coming up and we just keep pushing,” said Reid.