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

The Jim Knowles era can’t start soon enough...

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
Utah Team Total: O/U 29.5

Key Players (Utah’s Offense):

QB — Cam Rising (Soph.)

After Utah lost two of their first three games of the season to BYU and San Diego State, the team decided to make a change at quarterback and start Cameron Rising. It turned out to be the correct decision, as the Utes went on to win nine of their final 10 games, including the Pac-12 title game, with Rising at the helm. The sophomore quarterback threw for 2,279 yards with 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions, ranking as the No. 1 QB in the conference according to ESPN’s QBR with an 81.3 rating. He was recognized for his efforts with an All-Pac-12 First Team selection, and earned a nomination for the 2021 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award after suffering a season-ending injury in 2020.

RB — Tavion Thomas (Soph.)

Starting his collegiate career at Cincinnati, Tavion Thomas played four games at Independence CC in 2020 before landing at Utah. He quickly worked his way to the top of the depth chart for the Utes, rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2021 while tying for the FBS-lead with 20 touchdowns on the ground this season. After having just two prior career 100-yard rushing games before ending up in Salt Lake City, Thomas recored five 100-yard games this year, including a four-touchdown, 160-yard performance against UCLA and a career-high 177 yards and four scores against Stanford. Like Rising, Thomas was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team.

TE — Brant Kuithe (Jr.)

Despite starting in only eight games, Brant Kuithe is Utah’s leading receiver on the year. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound tight end hauled in 44 receptions on the year — second on the team — for a team-high 534 yards and six touchdowns. After leading the Utes in receptions in both 2019 and 2020, Kuithe’s 123 career receptions is the most by all active tight ends in the Pac-12 in 2021 and the most by a Utah tight end since at least 1996. He has almost 1,600 career receiving yards to go along with 16 touchdown receptions, some really impressive numbers for a tight end. He also has 16 rushing attempts in his career at Utah, posting 155 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

Key Players (Ohio State’s Defense):

LB — Steele Chambers (Soph.)

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Steele Chambers transitioned from the running back room to linebacker, where he almost instantly became the best player in the unit and one of the better contributors on a below-average Ohio State defense. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Chambers came to Columbus as a four-star prospect, listed as both a running back and an athlete — which, in hindsight, certainly checks out. The move to the defense was clearly the correct one for Chambers, who posted 42 total tackles with five tackles for loss with one sack and an interception this season. While obviously still fully learning the position, Chambers showcased tremendous athleticism and flashed on a defense desperately looking for answers.

BLT — Ronnie Hickman (Soph.)

Officially listed as a safety on Ohio State’s roster, Ronnie Hickman starred as the Bullet on the Buckeyes’ defense — a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Affectionately nicknamed “Rocket”, Hickman led Ohio State with 96 total tackles to go along with a sack and two interceptions, one of which being a pick-six. Like Chambers, Hickman is one of the most athletic players among the Silver Bullets. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound New Jersey native wasn’t always perfect in coverage, but seemed to have a nose for the ball and was one of the team’s more consistent tacklers. After playing in just two games as a freshman, Hickman stepped up admirably in his first year as a starter.

CB — Denzel Burke (Fr.)

It isn’t often that the best player in Ohio State’s secondary is a true freshman, but that is exactly what Denzel Burke quickly became. Coming to Columbus by way of Scottsdale, AZ, Burke was a bit lost in the shuffle in a Buckeye recruiting class full of defensive backs, especially since he was listed as an athlete during his recruitment. However, we heard nothing but positive things about the 6-foot-1, 192-pound freshman during preseason camp, and he proved the coaching staff right during the season. Burke led the team with 11 pass breakups to go along with 32 total tackles and an interception. He did make a handful of freshman mistakes, as one would expect from such a young player, but he was still Ohio State’s clear and obvious No. 1 corner throughout the season.

Overview

I don’t think it'll be a shock to anyone to hear that Ohio State’s defense wasn’t very good this season. They began the year with a shaky performance against Minnesota and got exposed by Oregon before beating up on some weaker competition throughout the middle of the season, only to be thoroughly embarrassed by Michigan in the final game of the regular season. While talent was apparent at nearly every level of the defense, the coaching staff on that side of the ball clearly has no idea what they are doing, ranging from basic personnel decisions to play-calling and scheme and everything in between. Ryan Day has addressed the problem by bringing in Jim Knowles, but he won’t be here until next season.

Utah’s offense is tough and physical — two things the Buckeye defense is not, which they themselves have admitted in the wake of the loss to the Wolverines. The bad news for Ohio State is that the Utes are basically just West Coast Michigan. They are not an explosive offense by any means, but they pound the rock and run an efficient offense as they look to grind you down over the course of 60 minutes. We saw how unprepared the Buckeyes looked against a run-heavy team in Ann Arbor, and I fully expect Utah to follow that blueprint as they try to upset Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The same brainless defensive coaches will be on the Buckeyes’ sideline in Pasadena, so it would be shocking to see much of any improvement on that side of the ball to close out the season.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.