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What Ohio State is saying about Utah

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs the ball in for a touchdown.
Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs the ball in for a touchdown, putting the Utes up 38-3 over the Oregon Ducks after the PAT, during the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — “Physical” is the word used most by Ohio State’s defensive players and coaches while describing Utah’s offense this week.

Ohio State coach Matt Barnes, who has served as the Buckeyes’ defensive play caller since the firing of defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs after Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to Oregon, described Utah’s offense as “very physical”.

“Physical, they’re a very physical team. They’re very well-coached. They’re a sort of NFL style, and they use multiple tight end personnel groupings. They do a good job with presnap shifting and motions, some of the things you see more in the NFL than you do in college football,” Barnes said.

Barnes will be relieved of defensive play-calling duties after the Rose Bowl since Ohio State hired Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles as the team’s new defensive coordinator starting Jan. 2.

Ohio State is fresh off of a 42-27 loss to Michigan in “The Game,” losing to the Wolverines for the first time since 2011.

Michigan ran the ball 41 times for 297 yards, scoring six rushing touchdowns.

Up eight points with five minutes left, Michigan had the ball, and Ohio State needed a stop to try and mount a game-tying touchdown drive.

Everyone in the Big House knew the Wolverines were going to run the ball, Ohio State knew they were going to run the ball, but the Buckeyes couldn’t stop Michigan running back Hassan Haskins.

Haskins got the ball five times, rushing for 63 yards and the game-clinching score.

The Utes, led by running back Tavion Thomas and an offensive line headlined by Nick Ford, could pose a similar challenge as Michigan. Utah boasts one of the best rushing offenses in college football, averaging 216 yards per game on the ground.

“Really, just stacking the box and going right at you. Yeah, a lot of similarities (to Michigan) as far as, like, the run game. They just come at you downhill. So just got to be prepared for that,” Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers said.

Utah’s rushing success starts with its offensive line, which has grown better each game after challenges against BYU and San Diego State early in the season. Ford and Bam Olaseni have shined up front for the Utes.

“They’re just big and tough. We were walking around them at Disney and they’re just massive guys. So just got to be prepared for that. Just got to be as physical as them,” Chambers said.

At 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, Thomas is also a big running back with the ability to get yards after contact, something the Buckeyes have seen plenty of in the Big Ten.

“It’s a downhill scheme. It’s a little bit of zone scheme, a little bit of gap scheme, a little bit of quarterback run, multiple formations, shifts and motions,” Barnes said. “If you’re not gapped out, if everybody’s not doing their job, you’ve got real problems. Even if you are gapped out, they’re so big and physical upfront.

Utah is led by quarterback Cam Rising, who has provided the Utes with stability at the position after a rough performance from Charlie Brewer to start the season.

“He’s faster than you like. He’s more physical than you like. He throws a better ball than you like. He’s a really good player that I think has gotten better and better throughout the season,” Barnes said. “Particularly as he got into the conference championship game and down the stretch, he’s played exceptionally well.”

Rising has thrown for 2,279 yards and 18 touchdowns this season and has also rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns.

“Definitely it’s different. Most teams that play against us have a quarterback who can’t really run much, but we should be all right with it,” cornerback Cameron Brown said.

What makes Utah’s offense unique is its use of two and three tight end sets, which presents a challenge to the opponent.

“It’s a matchup issue. It’s who do you put on them? Is it a linebacker? Can that linebacker cover him if he flexes out? Is it a safety,” Barnes said.

Tight end Brant Kuithe leads the team in receiving yards, with 534, while Dalton Kincaid has 465 receiving yards and Cole Fotheringham, primarily used as a blocking tight end, has 109. Utah’s tight ends have caught 13 touchdowns this season.

“When you have more tight ends in the game, you create some extra gaps that whereas in a one tight end set, you have seven gaps,” Barnes said. “Now as soon as you are in a two tight end or three tight end set, you’re talking about eight, nine, even 10 gaps you’ve got to defend, and it’s just different. It’s not something you see a ton in college football.”

On defense, the spotlighted player is Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, who will likely be a first-round NFL draft pick.

“They do a lot of good things. Devin Lloyd, he does a great job. He is an all-world player. He can play the game. They’ve got some good DBs. Safeties do a great job of reading eyes,” Ohio State C.J. Stroud said. “The corner, (Clark Phillips III), he is really handsy, and he likes to jump stuff. The D-line (Van Fillinger and Mika Tafua) do a good job of creating pass rush and doing things like that.”

Ohio State player C.J. Stroud wearing a face mask is interviewed during the Rose Bowl Team Visit Disneyland Resort.
Ohio State player C.J. Stroud wearing a face mask is interviewed during the Rose Bowl Team Visit Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., Monday, Dec. 27, 2021.
Ringo H.W. Chiu, Associated Press

With 107 tackles, seven sacks, four interceptions and a forced fumble, Lloyd has had an excellent season. He was a consensus All-American and was named the MVP of the Pac-12 championship game.

“They got a great defense. They got some players who can move around the field, make a lot of plays. Especially the linebackers. So it’s going to be a physical game, it’s going to be a hard game,” Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson said.

The other half of Utah’s linebacker duo, Nephi Sewell, has 81 tackles with an interception.

“They’re always good. It’s Kyle (Whittingham). It’s what he did when he was a coordinator,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “... I’ve got a lot of respect for him. The team plays with his personality and toughness. They’ve recruited well, kids that fit their culture.”

Utah’s defense allows 20.6 points per game, 13th in the nation. Utah is adept at stopping the run.

“We’re excited to go against those guys. And in order to win this game, we know we will have to run the ball. The best way to go into a game is to show your opponents some respect,” Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert said.

Stopping Ohio State’s passing attack, which puts up the most points in football, even with star receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave opting out, will be tough as the Utes are thin at one of the cornerback positions and the Buckeyes have the two No. 1 receivers from the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes, plus the son of Hall-of-Famer Marvin Harrison, stepping in.

Phillips III, who decommitted from Ohio State before flipping to Utah, will have his hands full with Ohio State’s leading receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Stroud, who threw for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns this season and was a Heisman finalist, is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

Utah’s defensive line has sacked the quarterback 42 times, tied for eighth in the NCAA.

Tafua leads the charge with 9.5 sacks and 47 tackles, while Fillinger has 5.5 sacks and 40 tackles.

“Their defense is very stout. We knew that going in, watching tape every day about them. And their linebackers are really good. Their D-linemen are really good,” Ruckert said. “We know we’re going into a game where if we’re not on our A game we can get hit right in the face.“

Utah and Ohio State face off in the 108th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday at 3 p.m. MST.

“We have a great opponent and a tremendous amount of respect for coach (Kyle) Whittingham and his team and what they’ve done. We certainly know this is going to be a challenging month and a great game,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.