Seniors’ final home fight against Arizona


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Senior day at a college football game can be such a hodgepodge of emotions. Fans, coaches and even the players get to look back on their scholastic and athletic careers up to that point, pinpointing the most favored and heartwarming of times before the harsh reality sets in that they will never again take the field as an athlete representing their school.
When the Utes take the field to play Arizona Saturday, 17 seniors will be doing so for the final time at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a Utah uniform.
Three of these seniors who have been so integral to the newfound success of the Utah football program in the Pac-12 are strong safety Brian Blechen, cornerback Eric Rowe and tight end Westlee Tonga. When fans think back to the first years of Pac-12 football for the Utes, these are three players that will surely stand out in memories as not only big playmakers, but fan favorites.
When asked about their feelings of playing in Rice-Eccles Stadium for one final time, each gave a look of curiosity before their eyes turned downward in dismay of the realization.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Rowe said. “Right now it’s just another game, but it will probably hit me when we take the field for senior day.”
Tonga took the more avoidant route and said he wasn’t thinking about it at all.
“I’m just trying to come out of there with a win,” Tonga said. “That’s all I’m looking for.”
Finally, Blechen said that while he’s looking forward to the experience, he knows that overall it will be bittersweet.
“It’s going to be fun,” Blechen said. “It’s a big game on Saturday that we want to win badly, but I definitely am going to miss coming out of the tunnel at Rice-Eccles. This program’s done a ton for me, and I’ll always remember that.”
While their times at Utah vary, all three players have made an impact on the hearts and minds of Ute fans since their introduction to the program.
Blechen followed the California pipeline to Utah from Moorpark, Calif. in 2010 and was a freshman All-American at safety during the Utes’ final campaign in the Mountain West Conference. Aside from missing the 2013 season with a medical redshirt, Blechen has started in every game he’s played, including all 10 games this season, bringing his total to 45 starts as a Ute.
Rowe is a true senior from Spring, Texas and has played each year since he joined the Utah program in 2011. In his entire career, Rowe has only missed two games (during his sophomore year in 2012) and has started 35 games at free safety before moving to corner this season and starting all 10 games thus far for the Utes.
It seems like Westlee Tonga has been a name that Ute fans have been saying for a decade now, and they’re not too far off. Tonga, who also hails from Spring, Texas, initially signed with the Utes in 2007 before serving an LDS church mission and first enrolled at Utah in January 2010. After primarily playing special teams in his first two seasons, Tonga got his chance at major playing time in 2012 behind Jake Murphy. After missing most of last season with a medical redshirt, Tonga has started all 10 games of this season for the Utes and has been an important target for quarterback Travis Wilson.
All three have been stalwarts to the breakout season the Utes are having in 2014. Blechen and Rowe lead a much improved secondary on one of the most physical defenses in the country, and Tonga has come up with some incredibly athletic and timely catches for the Utes’ offense when they needed it most. They all agree that ending their careers with a season like this is special, but that they aren’t satisfied just yet.
“There’s something different about this game and about this season,” Blechen said. “I barely remember my first few seasons to this point, and this season is important because it’s your last one. We’re happy with where we’re at, but these next two games are critical and we want wins.”
Tonga credits the entire senior class for making the 2014 season memorable and said he wouldn’t want to end it with anyone else.
“It’s been great coming out with this group, especially these seniors,” Tonga said. “The games only last 60 minutes, we know that. But the relationships you build with all these players, they last a lifetime, and you can tell when you see guys coming back [to games].”
You could see the ideas bubbling in the players’ heads when asked about what would make the most perfect ending to their playing days at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Blechen came up with the most popular scenario, taking a page out of senior day 2013.
“Getting the win would be great,” Blechen said. “But the only other thing I could think of would be to top Trevor Reilly with his interception on senior day last year.”
After all sharing a laugh, Rowe said that would be an incredibly difficult feat to achieve.
“I don’t think you can top that. You can’t really top that,” Rowe said. “Getting the game winner, however it might be, and then throwing the ball into the end zone … that was pretty sweet last year. I’d love to see that again, but you never know.”
Utah will commemorate all of its seniors on Saturday before the No. 20 Utes kick off against the No. 15 Arizona Wildcats at 1:30 pm MT in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
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