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PASADENA, Calif. — The result was the same, but the pain of the Rose Bowl was seemingly worse the second time.
In the first go around against Ohio State, Utah went toe-to-toe with an offensive juggernaut and lost by 3 points. In the follow-up meeting against a Penn State team that appeared to be a mirror image of the Utah program, the game wasn't particularly close.
For all the opportunities that have been afforded to Utah by reaching the Rose Bowl in back-to-back seasons — recruiting, alone, has seen a boost — the program still has another hurdle to climb.
Utah has put itself in position to be in some of the biggest moments available to a Pac-12 team over the last five seasons — growth has been more than noticeable — but the program hasn't found a way to win in the postseason against its blue blood opponents; and as such, Utah hasn't won a bowl game since the 2017 season.
"We just have to keep coming back to this game until we get it right," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Took us three times in the Pac-12 championship before we got the win, so we've got to make sure that we try to continue to get better."
Ahead of the Rose Bowl, Whittingham said getting to the game in back-to-back seasons was part of the "evolution" of Utah's growth as a program. For a school that was in the Mountain West Conference just over a decade ago, Utah's evolution has been significant. It's a program that has been one of the most consistent over the last five seasons in the Pac-12 and is often considered the hunted and not the hunter.
Look no further than Utah being selected to win the Pac-12 ahead of the 2022 season, even with the talent influx at USC and the always talented Oregon team lurking in the wings. And Utah delivered — albeit in a circuitous route to its second conference championship — on the big stage against a formidable opponent.
The Pac-12 knows Utah is a force to be reckoned with — it's been proven time and time again; but for the program to take the next step, the rest of the country has to know that, as well. And on the biggest stage, the rest of the country hasn't seen it yet. The Big Ten still rules the day (or even the SEC given Utah's Week 1 fall).
"The season is a success regardless," Whittingham said. "For our program to be able to go back-to-back from where we started when we joined this conference 11 or 12 years ago was a big step in the right direction; and we talked about that all season that getting to the top is one thing but staying on top is another. It's a bigger challenge and it's harder to sustain success than getting there the first time, and I think our guys did a great job of taking that to heart."
The season is still a success, as Whittingham said, but Utah is not a complete product just yet — most but a select few rarely are on a consistent basis — but the bigger challenge remains an elusive feat.
It's uncertain if Utah will ever clear that hurdle in Whittingham's tenure or beyond, but it remains the biggest challenge left for a Utah program that in a lot of ways has defied the odds. And though Whittingham and the players can point to individual successes and the the opportunities they've been a part of, their focus remains on getting better; it's just a question of how much better can they be?
"As disappointed as we are and as bitter as this is, still a lot to build on, and definitely the season overall was a step in the right direction for our program," Whittingham said. "We've got to continue that. That's where we're at."
"Going back-to-back Rose Bowls, not a lot of people say they can do that, but at the same time we wish we would have executed better to come out as Rose Bowl champions," receiver Devaughn Vele said. "It doesn't matter how many times you come to the Rose Bowl, it's better when you win one; so we could come 100 times, if we don't win one, it doesn't really mean that much. I feel like execution-wise we could have done better, but it's credit to Penn State, they played a really good game, and we're just going to get back to the drawing board and start preparing for next season."
It's the never-ending challenge: get better and try to overcome the previous season's hurdles.