Utah caps off a historic season with its first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl, where the Utes will face Ohio State on Saturday.
This marks the 16th time Ohio State has appeared in the Rose Bowl. The No. 6 Buckeyes (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) have posted an 8-7 record in the bowl game, which is second only to USC in total Rose Bowl victories. Ohio State was in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff until losing to Michigan to close out the regular season. The Buckeyes lead the nation in total offense with 551.4 yards per game and scoring offense with 45.5 points per game.
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Utah (10-3, 8-1 Pac-12) clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl after winning its first Pac-12 championship in school history. The No. 11 Utes are a tough team to deal with on both sides of the ball. Utah is the only Pac-12 team that ranks in the top 30 nationally in scoring offense and scoring defense. Defensively, the Utes allow 315.4 yards per game – the fewest of any Pac-12 team. Utah has totaled 2,809 rushing yards this season – fifth all-time for a single season in school history.
This is the second meeting between the two schools. Ohio State beat Utah 64-6 in the lone previous meeting in 1986.
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One Venture X: No. 6 Ohio State (10-2) vs. No. 11 Utah (10-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Rose Bowl Stadium (Pasadena, Calif.)
Spread: Ohio State -5
When Ohio State Has the Ball
C.J. Stroud is the engine that makes this offense operate so smoothly and steamroll most opponents Ohio State faces. Stroud was the top passer in the Big Ten this season, throwing for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns. He's had four 400-yard games in his first season as the starter. Stroud's efficiency helps make him a potent passer. He has completed 71 percent of his pass attempts this season and has not thrown an interception in seven of his last eight games.
Stroud will be missing two of his top targets against Utah. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson both opted out of playing in the Rose Bowl to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft. Wilson tallied 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns on 70 catches during the regular season. Olave piled up 936 yards and 13 touchdowns on 65 receptions. The good news for Ohio State is that Jaxon Smith-Njigba is still around. Smith-Njigba leads the Buckeyes with 1,259 yards on 80 receptions and ranked second in the Big Ten in total receiving yards. Shutting him down will be a major focus for Utah's defense.
As strong as Ohio State's passing attack is, the Buckeyes are not a one-dimensional offense. TreVeyon Henderson piled up 1,172 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in the regular season. The freshman has three 100-yard games under his belt and averages 7.02 yards per carry. The Buckeyes are undefeated when he rushes for at least 80 yards, and he also has the ability to break off a big run at any point.
When Utah Has the Ball
Utah has a dangerous offense largely because quarterback Cameron Rising is a dynamic playmaker. Rising earned the starting job in the Utes' fourth game and has posted a 9-1 record as a starter. He has thrown for 2,279 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his passes and ranked third in passing efficiency (145.74) in Pac-12 games. Rising's mobility has also served Utah well at critical junctures. He has rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
Running the ball is Utah's bread and butter, and the Utes have multiple running backs capable of reaching 100 yards on the ground in a game. Tavion Thomas leads the way with 1,041 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns on 186 carries. Thomas has five 100-yard games under his belt this season. TJ Pledger is Utah's No. 2 rusher with 671 yards and six touchdowns on 97 carries. Pledger had four 100-yard games during the regular season, and his 6.92 yards per carry ranked second among all Pac-12 running backs.
Utah's primary strength in the passing game is at tight end. Brant Kuithe leads the Utes with 534 yards on 44 receptions. Dalton Kincaid has a team-high seven receiving touchdowns to go with 465 yards on 33 catches. Britain Covey is once again the top wide receiver, with a team-high 49 catches for 480 yards. Covey is also a wizard on special teams, with an FBS-best 427 punt return yards.
Ohio State has won 11 consecutive games after a loss and has not suffered a two-game losing streak since the end of the 2013 season. The problem for the Buckeyes is that Utah is the type of team built to give them problems. The Utes have a punishing defense and a dominant run game. Utah has lost two straight bowl games, but the overall postseason track record is excellent for the Utes. They will be fired up to make a statement and will improve to 3-0 all-time in current New Year's Six bowl games.
Prediction: Utah 35, Ohio State 30
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.