The seniors have always just been around me telling me next play. Things happen, especially to, you know, a person who is getting a lot of playing time. —Julian Blackmon
SALT LAKE CITY — They taught Sampson Nacua to fight.
They taught Matt Gay to keep working.
They taught Mitch Wishnowsky to put the program first.
They taught Julian Blackmon mental toughness.
And Utah’s sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley, he said there is nothing he wants more than to send the seniors out not just with a trip to a bowl game, but with a bowl victory.
“They deserve it,” he said. “We’ve got to go to a bowl game. We have to; we need to. Just leaving those seniors with a bowl ring.”
The Utah football team may not need any extra motivation when they host Colorado this Saturday in the regular season finale, but, for many of the underclassmen, they’re finding it in their affection for the team’s seniors.
“I think there is more motivation,” said redshirt freshman wide receiver Nacua. “Part of the motivation is definitely to get our seniors to a bowl game; I mean, they deserve it. They’ve busted their butts out here for four years, and it’s only right to send them out with a good bowl game.”
He said winning on Saturday would give the seniors the finale they deserve, but it would also send a message about who the Utes are.
“I think really just finishing up hard to show teams that we’re not going to give up, that we’re going to keep fighting no matter what our record is,” Nacua said. “We’re just a hard-fighting team.”
Utah has struggled through some heartbreaking losses and some humiliating failures. They’ve been questioned, and, by most standards, but especially their own, they’ve underachieved. The mood of the team just a few days before they take on Colorado, also 5-6, is as optimistic, and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said that’s because of the team’s veterans.
“It’s because of the seniors and their attitude, and the way they’ve handled things,” Whittingham said. “Their leadership all season long has been impressive, and this team has been the same team every day, all season long with their work habits, their focus, and their attention to detail, which is a very positive thing to see.”
The underclassmen said the seniors have done more than set a good example for them. They helped them find confidence through struggle, and they’ve kept their attention on the possibilities of the season rather than any mistakes.
“The seniors have always just been around me telling me next play,” Blackmon said. “Things happen, especially to, you know, a person who is getting a lot of playing time. So, I think mental toughness is a big thing that they’ve taught me this year.”
The seniors will be honored before Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff, and that is a bittersweet moment for the coaches who met these players in high school, persuaded them to compete for Utah and worked with them to develop their skills on the field and off.
“I think it’s great for our seniors that put so much effort into this program to be recognized,” said linebackers coach Justin Ena. “And I’m going to miss my guys. So it will be sad, but it’s also the process.”
Each senior added something unique — and profound — to the team’s chemistry and culture. But, for Blackmon, there is one senior who has shown him more than how to be a great football player.
“Lowell Lotulelei,” Blackmons said. “You know, his character around us, we follow him because he’s our leader, just the way he holds himself, you know. He sets the standard. So, just being around him and learning things that he does, you know, I hope to further that tradition.”
Regardless of their desire to play with this year’s seniors one last game, the moment is the same one they’ve faced 11 other times this season.
“If we want our season to end right now or in a few weeks,” Huntley said. “Either we get a win or we lose. We’re looking at it the same as every other week. We’re just trying to go 1-0 this week.”