SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s inaugural game in the Pac-12 was memorable on several fronts. It began with a hard-fought 23-14 loss to USC in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 10, 2011.
The ending was wild. So wild, in fact, that the final score wasn’t resolved for nearly two hours. USC blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Utah and returned it for a touchdown as time expired. The score was initially waved off by an unsportsmanlike penalty. However, Pac-12 officials opted to reverse the call after reviewing it.
Since then, the Utes have played 71 more games in the conference — posting a 34-37 record. They’ve had four winning Pac-12 marks over their first eight seasons in the league.
The latest proved to be the greatest. Utah (9-3, 6-3) claimed its first outright South Division title. The 17th-ranked Utes will face the 10th-ranked Washington Huskies (9-3, 7-2) Friday (6 p.m., FOX) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, for the conference championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
There were ups and downs, twists and turns, for Utah in making the move from the Mountain West Conference and reaching such a destination.
“It’s been an exciting journey. As I’ve said many times in the past, when we joined the Pac-12 it was like I got a new job,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Everything was different . . . The bar was raised in virtually every area and it was a great challenge. Coming from a Group of 5 (conference) to a Power 5 is a huge undertaking. I think bigger than most people realize.”
Whittingham added that Utah did it the right way in terms of getting facilities on board such as the football complex and upcoming expansion of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“It’s still a process. You are never a finished product,” he said. “We’re continuing to transition and it’s been a challenge from a roster standpoint. That was probably the biggest and most important thing, is to get the roster where it needed to be depth-wise to compete in this conference.”
After going 9-18 in their first three seasons of Pac-12 play, the Utes have gone 25-20 with conference records above .500 in four of the past five campaigns.
Now comes an opportunity to become conference champions.
“It’s gigantic,” said Utah athletics director Mark Harlan. “I think it’s a really big step for us.”
Harlan noted that it’s been a step-by-step process to see the guys and the fans rewarded. He said it’s a big stage for the program and university before expressing confidence that the guys will be ready.
There’s certainly a determination to get the job done.
“Being part of the first Pac-12 champs is like the legacy I want to leave behind,” said senior offensive tackle Jackson Barton.
Although the Utes will be playing in their first title game, they have won or shared 24 conference championships. The haul includes crowns in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (1922, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933); Big Seven Conference (1938, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947); Skyline Conference (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1957); Western Athletic Conference (1964, 1995, 1999); and Mountain West Conference (2003, 2004, 2008).
Adding to the list this time comes with an invitation to the Rose Bowl. The Utes, though, aren’t looking that far ahead.
“I can’t focus on that now,” Barton said. “I’ve got to focus completely on Washington right now.”
Barton explained that it’s all about taking things “one step at a time.”
It’s an approach Whittingham appreciates.
“I am proud of our guys for continuing to persevere and fight this season. We overcame so many obstacles and so much adversity,” he said. “They are just a great group to be around and this has been one of the most enjoyable years of coaching for me. They are just a tough-minded group of players and I am proud of them.”
As for Washington, Whittingham acknowledged that the Utes are very familiar with them after multiple meetings since joining the Pac-12. The Huskies recorded a 21-7 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium in September.15 comments on this story
“They are an outstanding football team, well-coached, good players, great defense, great quarterback, great tailback, you name it, they've got it,” Whittingham said. “So we have our work cut out for us. But it’s a challenge and an opportunity and we are looking forward to it."
Utah's all-time record against Washington is 1-11.
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2018 Pac-12 Championship Game
No. 17 Utah (9-3) vs. No. 10 Washington (9-3)
Levi’s Stadium — Santa Clara, California
Friday, 6 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM