SALT LAKE CITY — The sting of defeat is hard to shake, particularly when an opportunity at playing in the Rose Bowl and winning the Pac-12 Championship was at stake.
Utah football came up short again against the Washington Huskies Friday, the second time this season, in a 10-3 loss in the conference’s championship game. Neither team scored an offensive touchdown, and a fluke interception returned for a 66-yard defensive game-winning score was the difference in an evenly-matched game.
With the finality of the moment still not realized, Utah football players slowly walked off the field in a sullen state, marching single file through a queue that Levi’s Stadium officials designated to guide the players back to their locker room. Nothing was said during the long walk; nothing needed to be said after Friday’s result.
That feeling was only compounded when some Utah players watched the high-scoring games the following day during a riveting championship weekend — the antithesis of the defensive slugfest between two of the best teams in the Pac-12.
“It's been hard — I'm not gonna lie to you. Just taking it all in, just watching other teams play well,” Utah receiver Demari Simpkins said Sunday after learning his team was selected to play in the Holiday Bowl. “I'm not going to speak for the defensive side, but for the offense's side, just seeing all those other offenses out there blossoming and doing way better than what we did, just hurts a little bit.
“But we're just going to take this time to regroup, and we’ve got a lot of time before we play the bowl game, and I know we'll be fine.”
Teammate Bradlee Anae agreed, saying, “It does suck, to be honest.”
But the program deserves more from its players than them hanging their heads and dwelling on a missed opportunity, Anae added. It’s an opportunity to regroup, maintain Utah’s strong bowl record — currently 11-1 under head coach Kyle Whittingham — and win one final game for the seniors.
“After Washington, I was hanging my head, but when I thought about it, I looked at Cody (Barton) and looked at all the seniors,” Anae said. “I was like, 'man, why am I putting my head down, I've got one more shot at this.' And so that really hit me right there. And so I was like, 'man, I'm going to do all I can to send these guys out; they deserve more, but they definitely deserve this one.'”
That opportunity comes in a New Year’s Eve bowl game against the runner-up of the Big Ten, a Northwestern team that finished the season with an 8-5 record and a championship game loss to Ohio State.
It’s also an opportunity for Utah to help do their part to repair a damaged Pac-12 reputation, which was once again left out of the College Football Playoffs — their third in the last four years and second in consecutive seasons. The conference laid an egg last season, with Utah as the only victor in all eight of the conference’s bowl games.
And more poignant was a 10-2 Washington State team being held out of a New Year’s Six bowl game while an SEC team like 9-3 Florida was selected to play in the Peach Bowl. The Cougars’ athletic director Patrick Chun told media their rankings are “maybe a reflection of the perception of the league.”
Quite frankly, the league needs help from each of its teams. A win over the Big Ten’s Northwestern would add only a ripple to the conference’s overall perception, but it’s still an opportunity nonetheless. And it’s one Utah players are ready to take.
“Everybody always says we have a weak conference because everybody's always beating up on each other and stuff. I just want us to show that this conference is not weak,” Simpkins said. “We have a lot of great teams in the Pac-12 and that's why we always find ourselves beating up on each other and everybody's losing every week. Every week is a Super Bowl, like we always say. So we just have to show what this conference is all about.”
“Yeah, it's a lot to do with the pride in our conference and so we're going to go out there and represent the Pac-12 the best way we can,” Anae added.
But with a hampered offense due to several starting players suffering season-ending injuries, the true challenge will be finding a way to score. That position might be bolstered should starting quarterback Tyler Huntley be healthy in time for the bowl, but Simpkins said he hopes Huntley is smart about a return and doesn’t rush it just to play in one game.
“I hope Tyler would be smart with his body and not try to rush it. I just pray he don't try to rush it back,” Simpkins said. “I know Tyler — he's very competitive and I know he wants to be back so bad for this bowl game. But if he comes back, it is what it is. I know he'll be fine.
“I know he'd be a little rusty at the beginning because that's just how life is, just how your body works. But I think he'll do fine if he comes back,” he added. “But if not, we've still got (Jason) Shelley … and we're going to keep it rolling if he don't come back.”
No. 17 Utah will take on No. 22 Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California, on Dec. 31 at 5 p.m. MST. The game will be broadcast on FSI as one of six bowl games played on New Year’s Eve.