Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
LOS ANGELES — A 3-2 record wasn't going to impress anybody.
A year removed from a near College Football Playoff berth, Utah limped to a mediocre finish in a trying 2020 season that was defined by COVID-19, abbreviated schedules and a one-time canceled season and everything in between.
Kyle Whittingham concluded the season by saying "we're pretty optimistic about the future," but there were few who would bet on his optimism, at least to the level that it would turn into something much bigger. The Rose Bowl or even winning the Pac-12 South seemed like the last logical next step for the program in the 2021 season.
Utah had put up a fight, sure, and made an 0-2 start and a loss to the team's starting quarterback in the first game of the season salvageable, but there was still a lot of work to be done for the next season.
Freshman running back Ty Jordan told media in his last interview before his tragic and untimely death a week later that "it shows the fight, it shows how hard we work, it shows that we're not going to end without a fight."
Little did anyone know, but Jordan's final few words to the media on that cold December day would become a sort of motto to a program that would suffer immense tragedy over the next nine months as it lost Jordan and his friend Aaron Lowe — two teammates suddenly gone.
But Utah wasn't going to end without a fight — tragedy wasn't going to derail a brotherhood driven to honor their fallen teammates. And what Jordan said following his final game eventually turned into the motto of "be 22% better."
The overarching identity existed long before Ty Jordan or Aaron Lowe stepped foot on campus; it's been the identity and culture Whittingham brought to the program when first hired on as head coach in 2004.
"I think the identity of the program kind of takes after its head coach or its coaching staff ... and you can see how the program's identity is embodied by coach Whittingham," receiver Britain Covey said.
"Kyle Whittingham has done an amazing job of creating a culture at Utah that's allowed these young men to thrive," defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley added. "And now having won the championship, it's just a matter of here's how we did it. Believe it. Trust it. Let's keep on going."
Utah is in its third New Year's Six bowl game (the first two were under the reign of the BCS) since the 2004 season, but the Rose Bowl is about showing the rest of the country that the Utes finally belong. Just 11 years removed from the program making the shift to the Power Five with an invitation to the Pac-12, it's about taking the next step as a program.
"That's the goal," defensive back Clark Phillips III, who decommitted from Ohio State to play at Utah, said. "When you're a program that's trying to gain notoriety and gain a name in terms of success, I feel like these games definitely help; Pac-12 Championships help. We've just got to continue to keep on dominating at a high level."
"I personally feel like Utah isn't the most respected nationally," consensus All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd said. "I don't think in comparison to a lot of guys on the east coast Utah gets as much recognition. So I know personally for me, I feel like this game will help Utah get a little bit more respect."
To the Utah Football Family:— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) December 30, 2021
The Moment of Loudness is coming to the @rosebowlgame. It will take place either at the last break in the 3rd quarter or the first break in the 4th quarter.
For A Lowe and Ty, let's make this the loudest one yet. #22forever ♥️🌹 pic.twitter.com/uHfm4ODryl
Utah has a chance at history — its first Rose Bowl win — and it can do it against one of the most recognizable brands in the sport. Pair that with the emotional toll the team has had to overcome over the last year and there's no better storybook ending to the season.
"We went through a lot this year. We made goals at the beginning of the season, and at the end of the season we lost some people," Phillips said. "We lost one of our dear teammates in Aaron Lowe. We lost Ty Jordan last year. Just being in that game, it was something that we dreamed of and that those guys dreamed of. We felt like we were playing for something huge, something way bigger."
"We've been through so much the past year," Lloyd added. "Really, it's kind of like the final game; it's all coming down to this game. One of the biggest atmospheres in college football. Everything is kind of at stake in a way. Really, we just want to make sure we go out right and dedicate these games to them the right way. I mean, really, just going to give everything we have. I know it's going to be very emotional at the end of the game."
Much like the start of the 2020 season in which Utah started 0-2 and rallied back to win three straight, Utah went 1-2 in nonconference play before reeling off nine wins in the final 10 games to claim the South division for the third time in four seasons, won the program's first Pac-12 championship and qualified for the lifelong dream of a Rose Bowl.
But the story can't end there.
"I keep saying it's not necessarily about how you got there but the end result," Nick Ford said. "I know that the start of the season didn't go too well, and as we continue on, we began to improve over the year. And now that we're here, we've got to take full advantage of that. So it's really important to not only the seniors but the underclassmen. They see how important it is.
"With all the adversity they faced this year with Ty and A-Lowe, I feel like it kind of matured them a little quicker than having to stay in the program two, three years. I think everyone on the team, especially those who came back, find it really important to go ahead and finish because we're here, so why not us."
Why not Utah?
So whether it's about being 22% better or not going out without a fight, Utah is ready for the challenge — the last two years have been more challenging than any game could be. But starting out the 2022 year with a win would be a poetic ending and capstone to Utah's rise in college football ... and one done for the two that will be on the field in spirit.