SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – After playing in one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls of all time, the Utes football team is leaving Pasadena frustrated knowing they could have defeated Ohio State, but also excited for the future.

Utah and Ohio State combined for an astounding 93 points and 1,146 total yards, as the Buckeyes rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat the Utes, 48-45.

Making their first ever Rose Bowl appearance, head coach Kyle Whittingham was proud of his team’s effort.

“They got absolutely nothing to hang their head about,” Whittingham said. “They fought the entire 60 minutes and came up short, but still made Utah football history this year, Pac-12 champions, which had never been done in our program. So I told them that exact same thing in the locker room. They’ve got nothing to hang their heads about. It’s been a terrific season. Yeah, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t win the game this afternoon, but that’s how life goes.”

Britain Covey, playing in his final game with Utah, scored on a receiving touchdown and returned a kick 97 yards for another score, becoming the first Utes player to ever return a kick for a touchdown in a bowl game. He said he was extremely proud of what the team accomplished this season.

“I think this season is kind of a good metaphor for our team,” Covey said. “Starting off 1-2, losing a couple of our teammates, battling back through everything. I think it’s just a good metaphor for our team and for life. I think the reason why our program has that identity is because of the stability that Coach Whit’s brought to it. We kind of just feed off of him.”

Despite missing five players in the secondary, and having starting quarterback Cam Rising go down with an injury in the fourth quarter, the Utes never quit. Linebacker Devin Lloyd, who will almost assuredly be a first round NFL Draft pick in April, said the Utes resilient attitude starts with the head coach.

“I think it starts with the culture that Coach Whitt sets, and he establishes in each and every one of us,” Lloyd said. “Then from the top down, it’s just a matter of everybody buying in, assistant coaches buying in, players buying in, and it’s really the type of guys they recruit. We have the underdog mindset where we’re never out of it. Even the higher rated guys, those are the type of guys that he wants in the program, and those are the type of guys he gets. Then it’s a matter of just really buying in.”

Even though the Utes lost the game, they provided memories the players and fans will never forget in their first trip to Pasadena. Especially for Bryson Barnes, who threw his first career touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 45. The Buckeyes eventually won the game on a field goal in the closing seconds.

But for Barnes, a walk-on from Milford High School, this was a game he’ll never forget.

“It’s pretty cool when you think about it,” Barnes said. “Yeah, I was in the Rose Bowl, but I just wish I could have given the seniors something better to go out on.”

“I’m super proud of him,” tight end Brant Kuithe said about Barnes. “The dude is a blue collar guy who works his ass off. So give credit to him. He did a great job leading us.”

While Kuithe will be back next year for another run at the Rose Bowl, the Utes are losing several key players, like Lloyd, Covey and defensive end Mika Tafua, who all declared for the NFL Draft. Tafua said he is excited about the future for this program.

“I definitely think there is a lot to be proud of,” Tafua said. “There are a lot of things we wish we wish we could have gone back and done better. This is a learning moment for next year’s team. You don’t want this feeling of losing, and I’m sure it will give them motivation into the off-season and into next year.”

Nobody was more exhausted after the game than Micah Bernard, who played on both sides of the ball for the first time since high school. Bernard caught a touchdown pass as a running back, and was also forced into action as a cornerback after injuries decimated the Utes secondary. But he can’t wait to get back on the field next season.

“We came up on the wrong side here in the Rose Bowl,” Bernard said. “But our number one goal this year was to win the Pac-12, then go to the Rose Bowl. We won the Pac-12, went to the Rose Bowl, but next year we’re going to do both.”

When asked about the possibility to repeat as Pac-12 champions next year, Whittingham said it was too early to tell, but he likes his team’s chances.

“We’re excited about the youth and the talent on this football team,” Whittingham said. “We went through the roster the other day, and it was 72 of our 85 scholarship guys are scheduled to be freshmen or sophomores again. We were almost in the same boat as this year. Many, many of those guys are playing for us already, particularly on defense. We’re optimistic about the future. Can we repeat? I think it’s too early to talk about any of that right now. We do like the level of talent, particularly the young talent on this
football team. Looking forward to working with them starting this winter.”