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Matchup Breakdown: Ohio State’s offense vs. Utah’s defense

The Buckeyes’ offense will look to end the 2021 campaign on a high note in the Rose Bowl without two of their top three wide receivers.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Rose Bowl Game Info

No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Utah

Date: Sat, Jan. 1
Kickoff Time: 5:00 p.m. ET
Broadcast: ESPN

Betting Lines:

(Courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Moneyline: Ohio State -250
Over/Under: 66
Ohio State Team Total: O/U 36.5

Key Players (Ohio State’s Offense):

QB — C.J. Stroud (Rs. Fr.)

After a bit of a shaky beginning for the first-year starting quarterback, C.J. Stroud blossomed into a star on the Ohio State offense. Completing over 70 percent of his passes for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns with just five interceptions on the year, Stroud helped lead the Buckeyes’ offense which led the nation in yards per game (551.4) and scoring (45.5 points per game) while sitting No. 5 in the country in passing offense (364.9 ypg). Clearly slowed by a nagging shoulder injury to start the year, Stroud was phenomenal after sitting out to rest against Akron in the team’s fourth game of the season. He would go on to throw just two picks the rest of the way — both against Nebraska — compared to a whopping 30 touchdown passes.

RB — TreVeyon Henderson (Fr.)

Despite not opening the season as Ohio State’s starting running back, it was clear from the jump that TreVeyon Henderson was the top dog in the room. Coming to Columbus as a five-star talent, the true freshman put every bit of that rating on display this season as he toted the rock for 1,172 yards with 15 touchdowns on seven yards per carry. He also hauled in 23 receptions for another 285 yards and four scores through the air. Just the fourth true freshman in program history to run for over 1,000 yards, Henderson set the Ohio State freshman rushing record previously held by Archie Griffin. He was also the only first-year player among the 10 finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back.

WR — Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Soph.)

Of all Ohio State’s wide receiver talent, there is a reason we are highlighting Jaxon Smith-Njigba here, which we will get to later on. Coming into the year expected to be the Buckeyes’ third option behind Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, JSN wound up leading all OSU receivers with 1,259 yards receiving on an impressive 15.7 yards per catch to go along with his six touchdowns. The Texas native quickly became a favorite target of Stroud’s as he showcased tremendous route-running ability and incredibly reliable hands. Smith-Njigba seemed to always be open on any given play, and his knack for working the middle of the field and being shifty with the ball in his hands makes him a dangerous weapon in the Ohio State offense.

Key Players (Utah’s Defense):

LB — Devin Lloyd (Jr.)

Likely one of the best defensive players on either sideline in this game, Devin Lloyd could have been a potential first-round NFL Draft pick at the end of last season. However, with the Utes only playing five games during the COVID-shortened Pac-12 campaign, he decided to run in back. All he has done this year is rack up an incredibly 107 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss and four interceptions — all of which are team-highs — to go along with seven sacks, six pass breakups and a forced fumble. Lloyd was especially impressive in helping lead Utah to its first-ever Pac-12 Championship, posting a 93.3 PFF coverage grade against Oregon in the title game — the highest mark for any linebacker in any game this season.

DE — Mika Tafua (Jr.)

Despite having already declared for the NFL Draft, Mika Tafua will still suit up for Utah to play in the Rose Bowl. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound edge rusher led all Utes defensive linemen with 47 tackles, with 13 tackles for loss (second on the team to only Lloyd) while leading the Pac-12 in sacks with 9.5 on the year. Ranking second among active Pac-12 defensive linemen with 32 career tackles for loss, Tafua has been named All-Pac-12 three times, including a First Team selection this season. Tafua was also the recipient of this year’s Pac-12 Morris Trophy, given to the conference’s best lineman as voted on by opposing offensive linemen.

LB — Nephi Sewell (Jr.)

This Utah defense is led by its linebackers, and alongside Lloyd is no slouch in Nephi Sewell. The brother of former Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, Nephi’s bread is buttered on the defensive side of the ball. The younger Sewell started his career as a safety at Nevada before transferring back home to Utah and transitioning to linebacker. The switch has worked out quite while, as Sewell sits second on the team in tackles behind Lloyd with 81 total on the season to go alongside his 7.5 tackles for loss, one interception and a forced fumble. Finishing three games this year with double-digit tackles, Sewell was selected to the 2021 AP Pac-12 All-Conference First Team.


This Utah defense is legit. Statistically, this is the best unit Ohio State will have faced all year, as the Utes currently rank No. 11 in the country in team defense (one spot ahead of No. 12 Michigan). Despite mostly leaning on its front seven, Utah is equally adept at stopping both the run and the pass, ranking 20th in FBS in rushing yards allowed and 24th in passing yards allowed. The Utes seemed to really hit their stride defensively towards the end of the season, and played perhaps their best game of the season in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon as they held the Ducks to just 221 total yards as Anthony Brown passed for only 147 yards with two picks. Ohio State’s all-tackles offensive line hasn’t been stellar this season, and they will have their hands full against the likes of Lloyd and company.

Ohio State’s offense will be lacking the same firepower it had throughout this season, as both Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave have opted out in favor of the NFL Draft, with lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere as the lone other opt out on offense. Ohio State has no shortage of wide receiver talent at its disposal, but losing both of those guys is a huge blow against this stout Utah defense. The Buckeyes managed to score only 27 points with those guys in their last time out against Michigan, but hopefully the warmer weather out in Pasadena will help them move the ball a little better. That being said, Stroud still threw for nearly 400 yards in the snow against the Wolverines, so his supporting cast — whoever they may be — will need to do a better job if they want to put up points at the Rose Bowl.

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