After more than a month of having to stomach the disappointing loss to Michigan, Ohio State will finally get back on the field Saturday, taking on Utah in the 108th Rose Bowl. This will be the first Rose Bowl in Pasadena in two years after last year’s game was moved to Dallas due to COVID-19. While the Buckeyes had their eyes on a big goal, “The Granddaddy of Them All” is still a nice consolation prize.
Return to the roses
Since the start of the College Football Playoff in 2014, Ohio State has played in a New Year’s Six bowl game in each of the eight seasons the playoff has been played. This marks the second Rose Bowl for the Buckeyes during that span, with the first being a 28-23 win over Washington in 2018. Saturday’s game will be Ohio State’s 16th appearance in the Rose Bowl, posting an 8-7 record in their previous 15 trips to Pasadena. The Buckeyes have won their last three appearances in the Rose Bowl.
A game to forget
The last time we saw Ohio State on the field, they were handed a 42-27 defeat by Michigan, giving the Wolverines their first win over the Buckeyes since 2011. C.J. Stroud threw for 394 yards, with Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba each topping 100 yards receiving. The problems for Ohio State was they not only didn’t get any help from their running game, rushing for just 64 yards, but they also couldn’t stop Michigan on the ground, as the Wolverines rolled up nearly 300 yards rushing. Heisman Trophy finalist Aidan Hutchinson was a menace, sacking Stroud three times in the game.
A brief history with the Utes
Ohio State has had nearly a month to prepare for Utah, a program they have only met one other time. The Buckeyes and Utes met back in 1986, with Earle Bruce coaching Ohio State to a 64-6 rout of Utah. The Utes are the eight different opponent Ohio State has taken on in the Rose Bowl. The team the Buckeyes has taken on most in the Rose Bowl is USC, who have faced the Buckeyes seven times.
C.J. phone home
C.J. Stroud will be looking to cap off an extraordinary first season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. Stroud took home a lot of hardware this year, being named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, and Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The quarterback was also a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, where he finished fourth in the voting.
The redshirt freshman led an Ohio State offense that averaged 551.4 yards per game and 45.5 points per game, both of which were the top marks in the country. Stroud finished the regular season with 3,862 yards passing, 38 touchdown passes, and just five interceptions. The California product completed 71% of his passes this season.
Enter new blood
Unfortunately Stroud won’t have a couple of his reliable targets from this season in this game. Earlier this week Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave announced they were opting out of this game to focus on the 2022 NFL Draft. Wilson caught 70 passes for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns this year, while Olave hauled in 65 passes for 936 yards. Had Olave played and been able to record at least 65 yards, it would have given Ohio State three receivers with at least 1,000 yards receiving this year.
In no way is the cupboard bare for Stroud in this game when it comes to wide receiver, though. Jaxon Smith-Njigba led Ohio State with 80 catches and 1,259 yards receiving this year. The sophomore’s real breakout performance came in the win over Nebraska when he caught 15 passes for 240 yards. With the spotlight on him at wide receiver in this game, a big performance could lay the groundwork for a campaign towards the Biletnikoff Award for Smith-Njigba in 2022.
With the Wilson and Olave not playing in this game, let the jockeying for who is going to line up next to Smith-Njigba in 2022 begin. Julian Fleming, Marvin Harrison Jr., and Emeka Egbuka all figure to see a lot of playing time in this game, hoping to state their case as to why they should be a starter next season. The trio combined for 18 catches for 270 yards and a touchdown this season.
Last chance to bring the Ruckert
One senior that didn’t opt out of his last game as a Buckeye is tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Even though Ruckert doesn’t have huge numbers, he is an important part of the Ohio State offense. Ruckert is one touchdown catch away from tying Jake Stoneburners school record of 13 career touchdown catches by a tight end. Last year Ruckert hauled in two touchdown catches in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson.
One player who is itching to put an exclamation point on his first season in the scarlet and gray is TreVeyon Henderson. The running back has already set a school record for touchdowns by a freshman, as his 19 touchdowns are one more than Maurice Clarett’s touchdown total in 2002. Henderson rushed for 1,165 yards, which puts him 73 yards away from passing Clarett for second-most rushing yards by a Buckeye freshman. J.K. Dobbins’ 1,403 yards in 2017 currently tops that list.
Henderson is hoping that the extended period of rest the Buckeyes have had since the loss to Michigan puts a little pep back in his step. After rushing for 100 yards in three games this season, the running back failed to reach triple digits on the ground in each of Ohio State’s last four games of the regular season. The Buckeyes need to find a way to mix Henderson’s touches with Miyan Williams, who rushed for nearly 500 yards this season. Keeping both fresh will go a long way in trying to solve a tough Utah rush defense.
A little shift
One offensive lineman that we won’t see is Nicholas Petit-Frere after the tackle opted out of the Rose Bowl. While Petit-Frere won’t play in this game, it will give Thayer Munford a chance to move back to his more natural position of tackle in his final game as a Buckeye. The Utes could have a tough time getting into the backfield with Munford and the mountain that is Dawand Jones lining up at the tackle positions.
More is needed
Even though Ohio State ranked 22nd in the country with 36 sacks this year, the defensive line underperformed this year. The high sack total came mainly against lesser opponents, When the talent the Buckeyes faced was raised, we didn’t hear nearly enough from the defensive line. In losses to Oregon and Michigan, the Buckeyes failed to record a sack in either of those games.
Haskell Garrett led the defense with 5.5 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss this year, but we won’t see the defensive tackle on Saturday after Garrett opted out of the final game of his college career. While Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison are active, it’ll be interesting to see how much Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau play in this game, since they are the future of the Buckeyes at defensive end. Hopefully Tyleik Williams also gets to see a lot of action on Saturday after the freshman recorded five sacks this year.
One area of the Ohio State defense that will likely see a new face is at linebacker. With Cody Simon not practicing leading up to the game, as well as Craig Young entering the transfer portal, there is talk Cade Stover could shift over to defense to play linebacker. It’s easy to see why the Buckeyes will try to get lightning to strike twice after the success Steele Chambers had this year after the former running back moved over to linebacker this season.
Chambers actually might have been Ohio State’s most impactful linebacker after recording 42 tackles, a sack, interception, and forced fumble even though he only really played half the season. Expect to see a healthy serving on Chambers on the field, along with Tommy Eichenberg and Teradja Mitchell in this game. Eichenberg and Mitchell combined for nearly 100 tackles this year and 10 tackles for loss.
Top two at the back
A big thing to watch on defense is if Ronnie Hickman will get the three tackles needed to become the first Ohio State defender since Raekwon McMillan in 2016 to record 100 tackles. Hickman was credited with at least 10 tackles in five games this year, including a career-high 15 tackles in the win over Penn State. Hickman really stepped up after Josh Proctor was injured early in the season.
Ohio State’s most consistent defender this year was undoubtedly cornerback Denzel Burke. Despite being just a freshman, Burke has played like a senior from the start of the season. Not only did he become the first true freshman to start on defense in the season opener since Andy Katzenmoyer, Burke led the team with 11 pass breakups this year, and has positioned himself to be the next great cornerback to come out of Ohio State.
One area where Ohio State had very few issues this year was with their special teams. After transferring from North Carolina, Noah Ruggles was nearly automatic this year, making 18 of 19 field goals on his way to earning first team All-American honors from ESPN. Just as good was punter Jesse Mirco, who was only called on to punt 29 times this year, which was the lowest total in the country. Of his 29 punts, Mirco placed 17 of them inside the 20-yard-line.
Winning by Whittingham
Utah enters this game looking to cap off one of their best seasons in school history. The Utes not only won the Pac-12 for the first time in school history, they are making their third New Year’s Six appearance. The first two came in the BCS era, when they beat Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl to cap off a perfect season, and in the 2009 Sugar Bowl when they shocked Alabama.
Kyle Whittingham has put together one of the most consistent football programs in the country during his time in Salt Lake City. Whittingham is 144-69 in 17 seasons as the leader of the Utes, with his win total being the most in school history. After playing college football at BYU, Whittingham has become a fixture with their rival, becoming an assistant with the Utes in 1994 before taking over as head coach in 2005.
The start of the season for the Utes was less than ideal, losing to BYU and San Diego State early on, but Utah has gotten better as the season went on, dropping just one of their final 10 games. The Utes found their groove on offense following the loss, scoring at least 35 points in eight games after the back-to-back losses to the Cougars and Aztecs.
A major reason for the improvement on offense for Utah throughout the year was an early change at quarterback. Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer started the season taking the snaps for the Utes, but things didn’t click quite like Whittingham was hoping. Brewer was replaced after the loss to San Diego State by Cam Rising, and Brewer left the program and will finish his career at Liberty.
Even though he hasn’t put up huge numbers as a starting quarterback, Cam Rising has steadied the ship for the Utes. After transferring to Utah from Texas after the 2019 season, Rising was actually Utah’s starting quarterback in last year’s shortened season before getting injured early on in his first game against USC. Rising and Brewer were in a heated battle for the starting job coming out of preseason camp this year before Brewer narrowly won. Rising obviously earned enough of the trust of the coaching staff to have them turn to him when things got rocky with Brewer.
Rising finished the season with 2,279 yards passing and 18 touchdown passes this year, as well as 407 yards rushing and five rushing touchdowns. The sophomore both passed and rushed for a touchdown in five games this year. Ohio State is going to have to keep track of Rising when he leaves the pocket because the California product can beat you with his legs, and at 220 pounds, he isn’t easy to bring down.
To go along with what Rising can do with his legs, Utah has a trio of running backs that have all run for over 490 yards this year. The Utes are averaging 216.1 yards per game, which is 13th-most in the country. Of their 2,809 yards rushing this year, 2,204 came from Tavion Thomas, T.J. Pledger, and Micah Bernard.
The star of the three-headed monster at running back for Utah is Tavion Thomas, who is from Dayton. The sophomore amassed 1,041 yards rushing and found the end zone 20 times on the ground this year. After rushing for just 144 yards in the first four games of the season, Thomas forced the Utes to keep giving him carries, cracking 100 yards in four of the next nine games. You know Thomas is going to have some extra juice in this game after growing up just a little more than an hour west of Columbus.
Much like how Ohio State had an Oklahoma transfer at running back last year, Utah has one of their own in T.J. Pledger. While Pledger hasn’t quite had a game like Trey Sermon had in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, he has still rushed for 671 yards and six touchdowns this year. Pledger’s speed provides a perfect compliment to the size and toughness that Thomas gives the Utes.
Britain & the beasts
Even though Ohio State undoubtedly will have the best receivers in this game, you can’t sleep on what Utah has to offer. The most notable receiver for the Utes is Britain Covey, who has led Utah in receiving yards in 2015, 2018, and 2020. Covey is wrapping up a career in which he has been named All-Pac-12 five times in his career, with four of those honors coming as a returner. What you are going to get from Covey is similar to what we saw from Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow when the Buckeyes and Tigers squared off.
Doing most of the heavy lifting in the passing game for Utah are tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. While Covey led the Utes with 49 receptions, Kuithe’s 534 yards were the team’s high-mark, and Kincaid’s seven touchdown receptions were there most of any receiver on the team. Utah is the only Pac-12 team with two tight ends that have over 1,000 career yards receiving. Ohio State’s secondary better get ready for a lot of tough, physical play from Utah’s wide receivers and tight ends.
Tough line to cross
As if Ohio State’s defensive line didn’t already have enough trouble generating pressure, they’ll be going up against an Utah offensive line that gave up less than one sack per game. The Utes didn’t allow a sack in five games this year, and they were just as good clearing lanes for their running backs, with their 35 rush touchdowns being the second-most amongst Power Five schools.
The Tafunas and friends
The Buckeyes could have used the services of Nicholas Petit-Frere in this game since the Utah defensive line is no joke. The Utes are averaging 3.23 sacks per game, which is 11th in the country. Leading the charge on the defensive line is Mika Tafuna, as the defensive end has a team-high 9.5 sacks this year. On the other end of the defensive line, Van Fillinger has recorded 5.5 sacks, while Junior Tafuna is a beast on the interior, as he has been credited with 4.5 sacks.
There’s no doubt where the heart of the Utah defense is, though. Linebacker Devin Lloyd had a phenomenal season, making 106 stops. 22 of Lloyd’s tackles were for loss, which puts him only behind Alabama’s Will Anderson for most in the country. Eight of those stops behind the line of scrimmage were sacks. Lloyd doesn’t just make tackles, he can also hold his own in the pass game, intercepting four passes this year. Expect to hear Lloyd’s name early and often on Saturday.
You serious, Clark?
Ohio State recruiting junkies will notice a familiar name in the Utah secondary in this game. Clark Phillips was originally an Ohio State commit before flipping to Utah late in the recruiting process. After a solid 2020, Phillips took a leap in 2021, picking off a pass, and breaking up a team-high 12 passes. Phillips and senior safeties Brandon McKinney and Vonte Davis are going to make things difficult for C.J. Stroud, who will be adjusting to life without Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.
After having to hear talk of how soft this team was for over a month following their loss to Michigan, Ohio State gets to try and prove how tough they are against one of the nastiest teams in the country. Utah is going to run right at the Buckeyes on both sides of the football. It’s not going to be too tough to figure out how Utah plans to attack Ohio State. The Utes are going to want to run the football right down the throats of the Buckeyes, especially after what they saw Michigan do in late November.
We should be able to tell pretty early which Ohio State team is showing up in Pasadena. The Buckeyes obviously had their eyes on a playoff game, and it could be tough for them to refocus, even though the Rose Bowl is one of the premiere bowl games. It also doesn’t help the mentality of Ohio State that Wilson, Olave, Garrett, and Petit-Frere all opted out of this game. The one good thing that will come out of those talented players missing is that it will give plenty of opportunities to some hungry backups.
While it’s easy to say that there isn’t much motivation in this game for the Buckeyes, they have spent the last month taking shots from Michigan fans and seeing the Wolverines get ready for the CFP. The rivalry is obviously heated again, and if the Buckeyes don’t put together a good showing this year, maybe Michigan sits above Ohio State in the polls and projections in 2022.
The defense hasn’t been as good as some were expecting this year, but we should see a solid performance from them on Saturday. Not only could the defense take some more chances in Matt Barnes’ last game in charge before Jim Knowles takes over, but the players know they are trying to make a good first impression for when Knowles takes over on Sunday. There’s no question the Buckeyes have a strong offense, they get an inspired performance from the defense to lead them to a hard-fought win over a game Utah team.