LAS VEGAS — I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity as I watched the first quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night.
Sitting in my tiny little basement apartment, forced into quarantine by a positive COVID-19 test last week, I felt like I had been transported back into 2009, when I was watching the Sugar Bowl between Utah and Alabama.
Remember that game?
Wasn’t it surreal to watch Brian Johnson lead the Utes down the field at the Louisiana Superdome on three consecutive drives to take a commanding 21-0 lead in the first quarter? It felt nothing short of magical to watch Utah show up on the biggest stage and dominate, wasn’t it?
I felt that same feeling again in 2021, watching the Utes dominate en route to their first-ever Pac-12 Championship. While Utah wasn’t able to take a three-touchdown lead in the first quarter – the Utes settled for just a 14-0 advantage in the first 15 minutes – the feeling I got while watching the boys in black in Vegas was eerily similar to their game in white in New Orleans.
It was magical.
Right from the jump, it was amazing to watch the Utes carve up the dreaded Oregon defense on their first drive. Cameron Rising had channeled a bit of Johnson with his leadership and ability to play with tempo. The opening touchdown came so easily and it set the tone for the rest of the night as the Utes rolled to a 38-10 victory (by the way, in two games against the “dreaded” Ducks, who spent most of the season in the top-10 of the national rankings, Utah outscored Oregon 78-17).
Sure there were bumps along the way, not only on Friday night but during the entire campaign. In the micro sense, Rising’s two interceptions served as ‘back to earth’ moments on an emotional roller coaster. In the macro sense, Utah’s otherwise terrific season will be marred by ‘what-if’ losses to BYU, San Diego State, and Oregon State.
Big deal. The jubilation when the clock hit zero and the roses started flying at the end of the title game made the journey worthwhile.
It was a journey that included not just one, but two gigantic gut punches with the deaths of Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. I remember when news of Jordan’s death reached our home. I walked into the kitchen on Dec. 26 and soberly told my dad, “Ty Jordan died last night.” He was shocked, I was shaken. It was an awful story to have to do for our first on ThisIsThePlaceSports.com.
Lowe’s passing in September was just impactful, compounding the loss of Jordan less than a year before.
When you consider everything that the Utes have gone through in the last year to arrive where they are now, it’s incredible that they not only found a way to get back on the field. They got to walk off the gridiron at Allegiant Stadium has Pac-12 Champions.
The undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008 were special, but the rise to the program’s first championship in 2021 now holds the spot of the greatest in Utah history, at least to me.
Is it a stretch to say the 2021 Utah football program might be the greatest sports story in the state’s history? I don’t think so.
I think those of us who love sports in Utah will be talking about and revering this team, led by a cavalcade of leaders like Rising, Britain Covey, Devin Lloyd, and Kyle Whittingham, forever.
What’s amazing is that there’s still room for more magic. The Utes are on to play in the Granddaddy of Them All for the first time. Capping off the campaign with a bouquet of winning roses in Pasadena would be the cherry on top of the most wonderful season of any group of athletes to hit the field in the Beehive State.
It would be the perfect ending to the Whittingham era. The longtime head coach has cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of Utah sports figures multiple times over.
Doesn’t it seem poetic that the Utes will play in the Rose Bowl in ’22, in a year represented by a number that has already meant so much this season?
I’m excited for the ending of the story. The penultimate chapter was already unforgettable.