After what seems like a year-long layoff (I think COVID has made every period of time seem 12x longer than it actually is), the Ohio State Buckeyes are finally set to play another football game... probably... maybe... we’ll see on Saturday. OSU is scheduled to take on Utah on New Year’s Day in the prestigious Rose Bowl.
Prestigious might be a generous description of the game at this point, which is sad when you think about what this game used to mean. Now, like seemingly every non-CFP bowl, it has become a watered-down exhibition.
Between opt-puts, COVID, and lack of interest from the common fan, these bowls just don’t have the same juice. I grew up on the Rose Bowl, and before the installation of the modern playoff system, this game was a huge deal! The winners of the Big Ten and Pac-12 circled this game on the calendar, all year long, in hopes of making it to arguably the single most important bowl game in all of college football. Now it seems like an afterthought, and that is very unfortunate.
While this game might not have the same relevancy that it used to, don’t bother telling Utah that they are playing in a consolation game. The Utes (sorry, but I just have to say it: terrible sports nickname) will be making their first appearance in the “Granddaddy of Them All,” and they will be bringing their hard hats and lunch pails with them. They are a physical, hard-hitting bunch, and they will leave everything on the field come Saturday.
Ohio State should take Utah very seriously. This game may not be the goal that the Buckeyes had in mind at the beginning of the season, but it’s still a big game against a big-time opponent. This is not some 8-4 football team that lucked into a Pac-12 title. After a sloppy 1-2 start, the Utes went 9-1 the rest of the way and dog-walked an Oregon team (twice) that handed OSU its first loss of the season. This could be a program-altering victory for Utah, as well as a perceived step back for Ryan Day and his group — should the Buckeyes lose. In order to avoid a third loss on the campaign, Ohio State needs to play well and find some of the physicality that they were lacking against TTUN.
Physicality will be a consistent theme during this Rose Bowl. The Utes play mean, nasty, aggressive defense, and they will be looking to make life uncomfortable for C.J. Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson. On the other side of the ball, Utah wants to run the ball down Ohio State’s throat. There is no pleasant way to say it: head coach Kyle Whittingham wants to grind out a victory, and more often than not, he can lean on the team’s running game to do so.
The Utes had four players rush for more than 400 yards, led by Dayton native and former Cincinnati running back, Tavion Thomas. Thomas is a beast of a RB at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and one hell of a story. Fellow RB T.J. Pledger led the team in YPC, with an average of 6.9, and quarterback Cameron (Cam) Rising is a dual threat taking snaps (407 yards rushing, 6.5 YPC).
These guys should each play a role against the Buckeyes, but they are all obvious candidates for the offensive player to watch. But I like to go with the wildcard occasionally. So, the guy I’ll have my eye on — and this week’s Offensive Player to Watch — is third-year freshman running back Micah Bernard.
Yes, I said third-year freshman. Welcome to college football as influenced by redshirt decisions and COVID. Bernard was a three-star recruit out of California who joined the Utes in 2019 and waited patiently for his opportunity. He sat behind Zach Moss and a room full of others as a freshman, appearing in only one game during the 2019 season. He earned more reps behind the late Ty Jordan last year, but due to the pandemic, still did not put a dent in his eligibility. Now, continuing to play in the shadow of others, he has carved out an important role for himself.
Though he is not the main back, Bernard is the most versatile. That is why I believe he presents a unique challenge for OSU. The Utes have a backfield situation that is similar to that of TTUN... and we all saw how the Buckeyes handled that. Bernard is Utah’s version of Blake Corrum or Donovan Edwards against Maryland — solid as a runner, but with the added skill of receiving out of the backfield. However, that’s not to say Bernard isn’t dangerous as a downhill runner. He got the start for Utah against BYU and rushed for 146 yards; he added another 100-yard game against Stanford, but Whittingham and his coaches just prefer the physical prowess of Thomas. However, what Thomas lacks, Bernard provides.
Thomas only had two receptions all year... for three yards; that almost seems impossible to do. He is the bruiser, and he will definitely give Ohio State’s defensive line all that they can handle, but he provides nothing as a receiver. Change-of-pace back Pledger contributed 10 receptions, but it was Bernard who paced the backfield with 24 catches for 236 yards. While Thomas got attention for the rushing yards and touchdowns (20), Pledger and Bernard each contributed over 700 total yards as well. Again, I fully expect Thomas to be a huge factor in this game, but the Buckeyes cannot afford to sleep on the other backs in this rotation — especially Bernard.
The Buckeyes have been burned, time and time again, by versatile running backs over the last few seasons. You can say the same thing about downhill power backs, but there have also been great, shutdown performances against the Kenneth Walker III-types. Versatile, pass-catching types like Bernard have been a consistent issue because OSU’s linebacker play has been subpar (to put it generously), and the defensive coaches have not shown the ability to make in-game adjustments.
Now, if the Utes are able to dominate the line of scrimmage, Bernard could be limited to spot duty while Thomas has a Hassan Haskins-like performance. But even without Haskell Garrett (and who knows who else), I do believe that OSU’s players and coaches want to put that Ann Arbor performance behind them. They know what Utah likes to do, so I think they will sell out to stop the run. That’s where the versatile Bernard comes in.
At 6-feet, 200 pounds, Bernard is not what you would consider a scatback or “traditional” pass-catching specialist. He just so happens to have good hands, while also possessing more-than-adequate size to be used in the downhill run game. He can do a little bit of everything. When Thomas and even Pledger are in the game, you know what to look for. You still have to prepare for an option-like attack with Rising entering the equation, but for all intents and purposes, those two backs are in the game to tote the rock, but Bernard makes you think. He makes you question pre-snap reads, motion, coverage — all of it. And that is my concern; making OSU defensive players and coaches think.
I don’t mean to hammer on Ohio State’s defense, but Micah Bernard and his teammates present a real challenge. I would argue that Utah’s running attack is the best one that the Buckeyes will face all season. OSU defensive players and coaches need to have a far better performance in Pasadena if they want to avoid another embarrassment like they felt after The Game. Fortunately, I think that they will. I firmly believe that the Buckeyes will step up and perform well, but guys like Bernard won’t make this Rose Bowl an easy one.