A 2nd Rose Bowl loss stings, but Utah Ute fans hold out hope for the future
A sea of red washed over Brickyard Bar in Millcreek as eager University of Utah football fans stared fiercely at the many flickering TVs covering the bar walls.
The beer and food didn’t draw the crowd to the bar on Monday afternoon, it was the Rose Bowl Tournament featuring the No. 7 University of Utah against No. 9 Penn State. And they all wanted to witness one thing: for Utah to take home the trophy for winning the ‘Granddaddy of Them All’ for the first time in state history.
Tension mixed with excitement was high as Utahns geared up for a New Year’s bowl matchup. Spectators collectively cheered during strong plays and rambunctiously rang a celebratory bell after every touchdown. An in-sync grunt or sigh accompanied every mistake the Utes made on the field.
A Rose Bowl win was Karen and Doug Coolui’s only wish. Karen described herself as “a Utes fan through and through.” Doug believed this was Utah’s time to shine.
“I just want the Utes to win this year. That would be heaven,” Karen said.
The Utes lost 35-21 to the Nittany Lions — a defeat many Utah fans didn’t expect.
But the comradery of Utah devotees is what stood out to superfan Cory Hansen. He has been a season ticket holder for years and said he has watched Utah progress from a small mountain conference to two-time Pac-12 champions.
“Driving down here with my car flags up waving, people were honking and throwing up the ‘U’ symbol,” he said with a big grin. “Players to fans, everyone is family.”
Former Utah Football tackle Jason Boone was among the jam-packed crowd at Brickyard. He also commented on how far the team has come since his time on the field. Boone played from 2003-2008 and won five bowl games. But he said those victories were “not anywhere near the caliber of a Rose Bowl.”
For Boone, winning the Pac-12 Championship and making it to the Rose Bowl twice is a sign that Utah is a force to be reckoned with.
“We have arrived,” Boone said. “We’re a big-time program and people need to start treating us like that.”
The Utes were tied heading into halftime. Penn State was up in the third quarter when Utah’s starting quarterback Cam Rising was sidelined by injury. As the Utes failed to rally, fans at Fisher Brewing in Salt Lake City began to lose steam.
Patron Randy Bills tried to not let that bring down his team spirit. But it was noticeable that the Utes' struggles were going to be hard to overcome.
“When a quarterback goes out, that’s not a good sign. But I still have hope,” he said.
A small group numbly stared at the screen in silence as Penn State scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Once there were only a few minutes left on the clock, it was clear Utah was not making the comeback Bills desperately wanted.
Robin Ljungberg said he believed the game started to go downhill after halftime and Rising left the turf. He added he thought Utah’s defense was “a little soft.”
“They [Penn State] were better than us tonight. Let's not kid ourselves. We got our butts kicked tonight,” he said.
He strongly suspects that if Rising stayed in the game, the outcome would have been different. But the loss doesn’t mean much to Ljungberg because he feels Utah will bounce back.
“We’re tough, resilient and we’re Utah,” he said.
The 109th Rose Bowl was possibly Rising’s last game with the team. The star player has teased plans to step away from the college field despite having one more year of eligibility. The notion that it was Rising’s final game brought forth different emotions from fans.
For people like the Cooluis, Rising is key to making it to the college championships next year. But for others, like Ute superfan Hansen at Brickyard, up-and-coming players like freshman quarterback Nate Johnson could lead the team to the playoffs.
“He's come out a couple of times this year and has shown a lot of flash and pizzazz. I think we have a great future at quarterback,” Hansen said.
This could be the last traditional match-up between the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences at the Rose Bowl. The game will be a College Football Playoff semifinal next year and the playoffs will be expanded to 12 teams in 2024.