LAS VEGAS -- Moments after an emphatic 38-10 victory over Oregon on Friday to claim Utah's first Pac-12 title, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham stood on a stage and looked out at his team and the thousands of Utah fans who stayed to watch the trophy presentation.
"This is for Ty and Aaron," Whittingham said.
Aaron Lowe, a sophomore cornerback at Utah, was killed during a shooting at a house party on Sept. 26 in Salt Lake City. Ty Jordan, the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, died on Christmas Day last year, the result of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot.
"This is as satisfying as it gets, honestly just to know that we did honor them the right way," said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, who was named the game's MVP. "Up to this point, we did everything we can just for them."
Throughout the season, the Utes looked to a mantra to help them deal with the passing of their teammates: They wouldn't get over it, but they would get through it.
"I believe our guys really did that," Whittingham said. "Ty and Aaron, we love those two young men, they were with us tonight. I'm positive that they were here with us."
Utah's win came just two weeks after a similarly dominant performance against the Ducks in Salt Lake City, and while the Pac-12 championship game was played in Las Vegas for the first time, it might as well have been another home game for the Utes. A near sellout crowd of 56,511 was decidedly pro-Utah and provided what was easily the most electric atmosphere in the Pac-12 title game's 11-year history.
"That crowd at Rice-Eccles 13 days ago against Oregon was the best environment I've ever been in and this was just a great show of support from our fans," Whittingham said. "I promise you one thing, they're gonna travel at the Rose Bowl. I guarantee you that."
Utah's opponent for the Rose Bowl will be officially announced Sunday, and will be dependent on the result of Saturday's Big Ten championship. If Michigan beats Iowa, the Utes will likely play Ohio State, while an Iowa win would send the Hawkeyes to Pasadena.
The Utes are the poster child for how a team can improve over the course of the season. After starting the season 1-2, Whittingham made a quarterback change, turning to Cameron Rising for the start of Pac-12 play, and the Utes have gone 9-1 since.
Hours after Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff reaffirmed the conference's desire for an expanded playoff field, the Utes could only wonder what could have been.
"I wouldn't mind seeing a playoff bracket expand a little bit, have more teams in there," Rising said. "That'd be nice."
Rising completed 15 of 24 passes for 170 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, while the Utes combined for 191 yards and three scores on the ground. But as was the case two weeks ago, the win was about a dominant performance from the Utah defense. Oregon managed just 221 yards of total offense and was held out of the end zone until far after the game's outcome was in hand.