How will Utah’s short-handed secondary fare against Ohio State’s explosive passing game?
Utah cornerback JaTravis Broughton suffered a season-ending injury against BYU while backup Faybian Marks was sidelined for the season due to an injury against Arizona. And late in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, Zemaiah Vaughn also sustained a season-ending injury.
LOS ANGELES — While Ohio State is missing key pieces to its team going into the Rose Bowl, particularly at wide receiver, Utah’s defensive secondary has been decimated this season due to injuries.
When the Utes and Buckeyes meet Saturday (3 p.m., MST, ESPN) in Pasadena, there will be different faces at those two positions for the two teams.
Utah cornerback JaTravis Broughton suffered a season-ending injury against BYU while backup Faybian Marks was sidelined for the season due to an injury against Arizona.
And late in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, Zemaiah Vaughn also sustained a season-ending injury.
“We have taken a hit at corner,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’ll make due. It’s next man up. We’ll put five guys back there in the secondary that will be ready to compete. We’re very thin at that position but we’ve got to deal with it.”
Fortunately for Utah, Clark Phillips III, who has proven himself as a lockdown corner, will be manning one side of the field for the defense.
“They do some great things on defense,” OSU freshman quarterback CJ Stroud said of Utah. “Their secondary players aren’t veterans but they play in their scheme really well. (Phillips) does a great job. He’s one of the best corners in the country.”
Ohio State, meanwhile, has one of the most explosive offenses in the country, led by Stroud. The Buckeyes are No. 1 in scoring (45.5 points per game), No. 1 in total offense (551.4 yards per game) and No. 1 in yards per play (7.78). OSU is No. 4 in passing offense — with 4,379 yards and 40 touchdowns through the air.
The Buckeyes boasted one of the top receiving corps in the country — at least it did before wide receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave declared for the 2022 draft this week and decided they won’t play in the Rose Bowl.
Wilson finished his 2021 season with 70 catches for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns while Olave had 65 receptions for 936 yards and 13 TDs.
Another star, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who has caught a team-high 80 passes for 1,259 yards and six touchdowns is expected to play Saturday.
Another weapon for the Buckeyes, running back TreVeyon Henderson, has rushed 166 times for 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
“Obviously, a very talented wide receiving corps, very talented offense period. What you see is you’ve got to do kind of a mixture of things, particularly when we’re as thin as we are,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “You have to be able to do a mixture of things to make the quarterback hold onto the ball a little bit longer. So you’ve got to be great in disguise. You’ve got to understand your strengths and weaknesses and where, if we’re going to get beat, here’s where we’re going to get beat. But, man, our guys have practiced well, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
No. 6 Ohio State (10-2)
vs. No. 11 Utah (10-3)
Jan. 1, 3 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700
How will the Utes deal with their cornerback void?
Freshman Caine Savage has played a few snaps at corner butt that was late in the Pac-12 championship game. Will freshmen like Elisha Lloyd, Kenzel Lawler, LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson and Drew Rawls see action in the Rose Bowl?
Scalley isn’t divulging anything about that.
Meanwhile, the Utes have moved some players to the cornerback position in practices leading up to this game.
“We’ve experimented with a bunch of guys,” Scalley said. “Obviously, you’ve got great athletes that have come to our university, and some of them have played both sides of the ball. We’ve experimented with a number of guys, and you’ll see on game day.”
While Olave has opted out for OSU, he’s in Los Angeles, playing with the team. Scalley wouldn’t be shocked if Olave played Saturday?
“Prepare for everything. He’s a very talented athlete. We recruited Chris out of high school. Unbelievable talent,” Scalley said. “The fact that he’s out there just again is a testament to he’s a football player, right? He’s out there. He’s still trying to get better. Wish him nothing but the best.”
Phillips is looking forward to facing Ohio State’s receivers, no matter who they might be.
“Man, I’m so excited. I know some of those guys,” he said. “But I’m just really excited because I know that whoever they put out there, those dudes are all good, and they were all the best of their class, the best wherever they were, and Ohio State does a really, really good job of developing receivers, so I’m excited about that.”
Utah has faced other teams with talented wide receivers in the Pac-12, such as USC.
“Washington State is much more pass heavy than Ohio State, but this is a big-time program. They’re sitting there ranked in the top four throughout the season. They’re talented for a reason. They win games for a reason,” Scalley said. “You don’t always face that throughout the year. You’re going to face one or two teams that bring that same level of talent, and this is one of them. So this is a huge opportunity for us.”
For Scalley and his defensive staff, the challenge is not just filling the holes at corner. Now, they must prepare for receivers that they haven’t seen much on film this season.
“I think you just have to go with, what are their pass concepts? What do they do? What shows up every game? What are their go-tos, bottom line. We do run some man coverage, quite a bit of man coverage, man pressure,” Scalley said. “So the film that you do have, you just kind of have to get a feel for, what’s their strength? How do we defend them? How do they handle press coverage? There’s certain things that we try to key in on. Otherwise, it’s all about who they are as an offense. They’re going to have their wrinkles. They’re going to have stuff that we haven’t seen before, right? So it’s just adjusting on the fly.”
Scalley has a lot of experienced players on his defense, but there’s still plenty of youth and lack of experience, especially at corner. But he’s confident in them, even on this big stage.
“These younger guys, they played in the (Pac-12) championship game,” he said. “We’ve had to win throughout the season to kind of stay alive and to be in contention to win the championship. So every game’s a big game, but these ones are a little bit more special.”