Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
LOS ANGELES — Devin Kaufusi was in heaven.
Coming from a big family, Disneyland experiences didn't come often. And for someone that loves all things Disney, being a part of the Rose Bowl cavalcade on Wednesday was everything he hoped it would be.
Kaufusi was one of four Utah players that included quarterback Cameron Rising, receiver Devaughn Vele, and safety R.J. Hubert who, along with head coach Kyle Whittingham, represented the Utes contingent Wednesday afternoon as they made their was down Main Street in Disneyland in a parade to kickoff the week leading up to the Rose Bowl.
By the time the cavalcade made its way to its end near the Lincoln Theater — as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto danced around for the various Utah and Penn State fans and onlookers who lined the street celebrated with them — Kaufusi anxiously waited behind the scenes and jumped up and down in excitement as the beloved characters approached him.
It was the pure love of a Disney fan coming out like a young child but in the frame of a 6-foot-7, 285-pound defensive lineman.
"That was sweet," Kaufusi said minutes later, still with a smile beaming from his face. "I'm a longtime fan of Disney — really haven't had too many Disney experiences here at the at the park, so I've got some catching up to do I feel like."
Though a fun start to a week of activities for the players to celebrate the team's accomplishments after a grueling season, it's still a business week capped off by the 109th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Jan. 2.
The week is supposed to be fun, but there's still a coveted — and elusive — prize at the end; and Utah is looking for a win this time around.
"We're obviously drawing from last year's experience, and we have a pretty good blueprint of how we're going to handle things. We had a good practice this morning," Whittingham said. "The key is for your players to understand when it's time to work, focus in, lock in and get the work done; and when it's time to have a good time, do just that.
"You've got to be able to separate the two, and I think that's the real key to be able to perform well in the game."
Vele echoed his head coach's sentiment and said the team this year has a better feel for what they need to do now that they've experienced the week leading up to the Rose Bowl before.
"I feel like the team that does that better is usually the ones that are going to come up with the W for the Rose Bowl," Vele said. "I feel like the players understand this, especially since this is the second year of us doing this, so we've kind of got a better understanding, better footing on what we've got to do in order to have a better outcome than last year."
In Utah's first Rose Bowl appearance a year ago, it was a shootout to remember. Utah built up a double-digit lead over Ohio State, but Utah's secondary was outmatched — and injury depleted — against the impressive receiving arsenal that Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud had at his disposal to make a comeback and claim a win on a last-second field goal.
It was a loss that didn't sit well with Utah, even if they were beat by a better team in the end — a blue blood program that featured the Heisman runner up at quarterback.
"We have something to prove after last year," Hubert said. "Our secondary didn't do as well as we want it to — of course, we played against a really good receiving corps last year. This year we have something to prove. We kind of have a chip on our shoulder with wanting to establish our identity as a tough football team. That's what we're looking forward to."
"I feel like it's a lot more serious this time around," Vele added. "Obviously, we're still having fun — I'm not saying that's all just monotone and everything — but I feel like this time around a lot of the guys are a lot more invested in really winning this game. We have the activities, the experience, but the main thing we want to do is just have a better outcome. I think that's what's driving us."
The Utah football team's appearance in today's Rose Bowl parade at Disneyland. pic.twitter.com/QsQjvfb4P4— KSL.com Sports (@KSLcomSports) December 29, 2022
So while Utah is once again happy to be playing in the Rose Bowl, it's now not enough to just show up for the game in Pasadena and be proud of playing in the Grandaddy of Them All. It's time to experience the winning side of the game — a necessary step for Utah to continue to grow its profile in an ever-changing landscape of college football.
"I think our program is headed in the right direction," Hubert said. "We just need to just keep coming to bowl games like this and win them."
Despite Whittingham holding an 11-1 bowl record at one point in his career, Utah has yet to finish out a season with a win since the 2017 season — a 30-14 win over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Being paired up with teams like Northwestern, Texas, Ohio State and Penn State can raise the profile of the program, but that only happens with a win to end the season.