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Not ideal, but Utah to embrace Las Vegas challenge

(Tom Smart/Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — As the third-best team in the Pac-12, there's plenty of reasons why No. 22 Utah should be frustrated with ending up in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl — a bowl designed to select the sixth-best team from the Pac-12.

Although not ideal, Utah players are content with their postseason destination and are ready to embrace a matchup against in-state rival BYU.

"We can't control what the bowl committee do. We were just thinking deep, down inside, we wish we could play another team," senior Gionni Paul said. "We didn't think we were going to play BYU — it's like Washington State playing Washington in a bowl game. We wanted something a little different. But once we got the news, especially the seniors, we were just like playing BYU in our last game, what could be better."

Utah had hoped to escape the shadow of the Mountain West Conference and had done so fairly well in the five years since its split. But following Utah's most successful season in the conference with a 9-3 regular season record and a 6-3 conference record, Utah was thrust back into its days of the Mountain West Conference in an all too familiar bowl against an all too familiar opponent.

It's not that Utah is upset to be playing in Las Vegas, it's that Utah still doesn't get the respect it believes it deserves as a team that has challenged the best of the best in the Pac-12.

"I think a lot of guys, like myself, we were hoping to go somewhere else and to have a new experience at a different bowl game, I guess to fulfill the recognition with what we thought we needed for a successful season," place kicker Andy Phillips said. "And ultimately, it is a successful season. The Vegas Bowl is a great bowl and ultimately the feeling I got from the locker room this past week was positive.

"There's nothing like playing BYU. And there's nothing more motivating than going down there and playing BYU because you have bragging rights until the next time you play," he added. "You can talk a little smack with your buddies who are down there and your family members who support BYU. It's a lot of fun, but that being said, we have to take the emotions out of it and just focus on the opponent."

Phillips added that the team will be playing a with a "huge chip on our shoulders" as a result of being overlooked by the bowls ahead of the Las Vegas Bowl in the selection process. Phillips said he believes the decision for other bowls not selecting Utah was simply a business move and meant to drive attention to a compelling matchup featuring a rivalry.

"I guess our 9-3 wasn't as great as it needed to be," Phillips said. "But not all 9-3's are equal, I guess. I think ours was pretty high up there, but national perception is huge thing in college football.

"I think we understand it's a business and it's a great opportunity for them and a great opportunity for us," he added. "I'm not too disappointed. There's a positive vibe from the team. It's always nice to get that national recognition, of course, but we'll play with a chip on our shoulder."

Added to the already emotional nature of the game as a result of being a bowl game and a rivalry game, BYU will be playing with extra motivation as a result of the team's head coach Bronco Mendenhall coaching his last game with the program before assuming the head coaching responsibilities at the University of Virginia. But for Utah, the extra motivation will not be playing on their minds.

"We lost to a team that had coaching changes, that's USC, so we can't overlook that," Paul said. "We've got to prepare like we prepare for every other game like they didn't lose their head coach."

"We don't pay much attention to that. For Utah football, it's just another BYU rivalry game. Bronco's done a great job down there, so congrats to him, and congrats on his new job, but we don't pay much attention to that," Phillips said. "... That's something they have to worry about. We're just worried about sending our seniors out with a win."

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Josh Furlong

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