LAS VEGAS — As the Utah players celebrated the Pac-12 championship surrounded by roses and confetti, the memories of two teammates who couldn’t share in the moment was paramount.
“Our mantra after the tragedy was we’re not going to get over it, but we’ll get through it,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I believe our guys really did that and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Jordan died last Christmas from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Lowe, who also played with Jordan in high school, was then shot and killed at a house party in September.
Their teammates used the memories as fuel for a season that ended with a title.
“We’ve got a lot of toughness in us and resiliency, said Lloyd, who was named MVP of the game. “But at the same time, I also believe that they were there guiding us throughout the whole season. They were able to help us create things that I don’t think we ever would have done without them.”
This game was a near carbon copy of the one in Salt Lake City two weeks ago when the Utes (10-3, No. 17 CFP) jumped out early and won 38-7.
While that game all but ended the playoff hopes for Oregon (10-3, No. 10), the rematch delivered the Utes the Rose Bowl prize they had been seeking since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah had lost its first two trips to the conference title game, including two years ago to Oregon, but left little doubt this time.
“We’ve just been working away on it ever since we joined the league,” Whittingham said. “This is the culmination of a lot of years of hard work and effort, not only by us, but everyone involved. It takes a lot of people to make this thing go.”
Rising engineered a TD drive on the opening possession after converting a sneak on fourth down near midfield. Tavon Thomas capped it with a 2-yard run.
Lloyd then returned an interception 34 yards for a score later in the first quarter and Utah put the game away by scoring twice in the final 27 seconds of the first half.
Rising hit Dalton Kincaid on an 11-yard pass with 27 seconds left. Then Malone Mataele intercepted an ill-advised pass from Anthony Brown to set up Jadon Redding’s 50-yard field goal on the final play of the half to make it 23-0.
The Utes led the game two weeks ago 28-0 at the half.
“Honestly, it seemed kind of similar,” Ducks safety Verone McKinley III said. “It’s tough because we felt prepared. We felt we had a good game plan and then to let what happened happen again was a tough pill to swallow.”
Thomas and T.J. Pledger added TD runs in the second half for the Utes to the delight of the huge contingent of Utah fans among the 56,511 in attendance for the first title game in Las Vegas.
Oregon: The Ducks had playoff aspirations after winning at Ohio State in September, but struggled to maintain that level of play. They were upset at Stanford on Oct. 2 before getting outscored 76-17 by Utah in two losses over the final three weeks and were denied a third straight conference title.
Utah: The Utes are playing as well as almost anybody in the country late in the season with six straight wins. But back-to-back losses in September to BYU and San Diego State before Rising took over as starting quarterback mean the Pac-12 champion will miss the College Football Playoff for a fifth straight season.
MOMENT OF LOUDNESS
There was an emotional moment during a break in the second quarter when the Utah fans took part in their “moment of loudness” to honor Jordan and Lowe.
A video tribute was played as fans lit up the stadium with cell phone flashlights and cheered. The Utes have held the “moment of loudness” instead of moments of silence to honor the former players.
Lowe’s mom, Donna Lowe-Sterns, also served as an honorary captain for the game.
“We etched their name in history, too,” Rising said. “That’s what we talked about all year and we really wanted to get that done.”
The lead-up to the game was filled with talk about the future of Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. There were reports that Miami was making a run at Cristobal, who won two national titles there as a player, and that the Ducks are doing what it takes to keep him.
Cristobal said he has not talked to any other school and if he had any news he would announce it.
“Let’s not create narratives as we sit here in this press conference,” Cristobal said. “Oregon is working on some stuff for me, that’s what I have right now, and that’s the extent of that conversation.
Oregon: A bowl game to be determined.
Utah: The Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 against a Big Ten team.