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SALT LAKE CITY — As linebacker Devin Lloyd weighed the decision over the offseason to come back to Utah for one more year, the 2019 Pac-12 Championship game weighed heavy on his mind.
It was one of those losses that stings no matter how many times you look back on it — some don't even want to think back on the day. Utah was on the cusp of a playoff berth as the dominant program in the Pac-12; and seemingly in an instant, it was all erased when Oregon embarrassed Utah on the national stage.
"I just remember that we got outside of ourselves," said receiver Britain Covey, who watched the game from the coaches box. "We missed — if you go back and watch that film — route depths were off, pass set blocks were different than they'd been all year. I think the moment was big."
Compound the loss with a chaotic 2020 season that felt more like a late spring ball session and there was nothing satisfying about leaving the university at the time — Lloyd was not alone as no player left the program to pursue the NFL after the five-game season ended.
To Lloyd, it felt like some unfinished business. With the makeup of the 2021 roster, the star linebacker figured he'd get one more chance to avenge back-to-back championship losses that he'd been a part of in his time at Utah.
"I wouldn't want anyone to ever experience that, but ultimately it happens every year," Lloyd said. "We're just doing everything we can in our power to be on the winning side this time."
It was the same situation for tight end Brant Kuithe, who didn't want to leave after a 2020 season that "wasn't a great year" — it didn't satisfy the pain from 2019. There was an empty feeling that needed to be rectified; it wasn't revenge, but the ending just didn't sit right on the mind.
"Going to the Pac-12 Championship twice and coming up short both years, it's just a horrible bad taste in your mouth," Kuithe said. "Coming in this year it was the main focus to go to the Pac-12 Championship, and we're there right now, so we just have to execute this game and move on to the next — whatever that is."
The 2021 season is the time to "finish the job," Lloyd said.
The game from two years ago has no real bearing on the result of what will take place on the field Friday (6 p.m. MT, ABC) in Las Vegas, but it serves as a motivating factor, of sorts, to help the team stay focused on the prize — not that the team needs anything more to keep their focus. It's a big game and one that Utah hopes will come out in their favor this time.
Utah is familiar with the opponent and is not shell-shocked by the name. And unlike in 2019 where Utah hadn't played Oregon in the regular season before the championship game appearance, Utah has already shown it can contend with the Ducks — a 38-7 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium less than two weeks ago goes a long way to appease the doubts.
It was a game where Utah showed up on the national stage — the most-viewed Pac-12 regular-season game in seven years, according to ESPN — and executed its game plan nearly flawlessly. And while a big win over Oregon exorcised some of the demons from that December game in 2019, it didn't result in a Pac-12 title.
Who ya got in the Pac-12 Championship game Friday?— Josh Furlong (@JFurKSL) November 30, 2021
"One thing's for certain is we made a bunch of plays in that game against Oregon a couple weeks ago that don't mean squat right now," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They don't care and they're not gonna have any impact on this game, so we've got to go out and make plays, and that's what it always comes down to is making plays.
"Not one play we made in the last two weeks will count in this game, so we've got to go out and make some new ones."
That game's final result certainly gives the team confidence that it can beat Oregon, but Covey said it still remains a mental battle to overcome the moment of a championship game — it's a big game, no doubt, but it's still one game.
"You're not going to get better, as a better player, physically in one week; but whatever 5%, 10% mentally you can prepare and improve this week is going to be — really, it's gonna show up on game day," Covey said. "I think that's one thing that I learned from the first two games is how mental this game is, it's like a chess match.
"I know they're mad, I know they're going to come out hot, so it's exciting. What more could you ask for than have two teams with that mentality. But us, we're just focused on our mindset right now."
It's simply staying in the moment — it's just a football game — and honing in on the preparation made to get to the championship game. The team isn't expecting a wholesale change from either program after two weeks, but the lead-up to the game is about doing "everything right this week," Covey said.
"We're not preparing much differently because what we've done has made us successful," Covey said. "Cam (Rising) always talks about: We prepare every week as if we're playing in a championship week. This week it is, but we're not changing much of our preparation. We may do a little bit more, but we're not changing and throwing in all these new wrinkles, because what we've done has made us successful, so I think that's comforting to the guys."
"It's a big game and if you try to look at it like, 'Oh, I can't wait for this game' or 'Dang, this is the biggest game of the season,' then you're gonna look ahead and you're not going to stay in the moment," freshman defensive back Clark Phillips III added.
It's all about "trust in you training," according to Covey, and the rest will take care of itself on the field. Oregon will want redemption, much like Utah wants redemption from 2019.
"I know they're more motivated, especially after coming in and not playing their best football," Lloyd said. "I know they'll definitely be more motivated to play us; but schematically, I don't think it's too much different. Just as far as the energy, I feel like it'll be a different team; but other than that, it'll be about the same."
"We really want to hit them in the face from the get-go and make sure that we set the tone early and let them know that we are still the same team that played them last time," Rising said.
"It's gonna be a big game," Phillips added. "We want games like this, and we want to play on a big stage and we want to dominate the best, so that's what we're excited for."