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Breaking down Utah vs. Ohio State in the Rose Bowl (+ predictions)

Can Utah upset blue blood OSU, or can Buckeyes finish season on upswing?

Members of he Utah Utes football team walk near the Rose Bowl after a team photo in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Members of he Utah Utes football team walk near the Rose Bowl after a team photo in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There is going to be a great story coming out of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Will it be how the Utes humbled the mighty Buckeyes; or how Ohio State woke up and salvaged the end of its season?

Here’s how either scenario will go down and arguments to support the script:

Utah 31, Ohio State 27

Using a balanced attack featuring the legs of Tavion Thomas, Cam Rising and TJ Pledger and consistent Rising passes to Britain Covey and very active tight ends led by Brant Kuithe, the Utes will take a page out of Oregon and Michigan’s playbook and beat the Buckeyes in the trenches.

Both Oregon and Michigan exposed OSU’s lack of hunger and motivation as well as confusion in wins over the Buckeyes. The big hit will come with the OSU’s highly-touted QB C.J. Stroud getting knocked around by the Utes defense. In the end, this will be the deciding factor.

Kyle Whittingham is at his best with time to prepare. He is dangerous when he rides a motivated football team. The Utes are fired up to perform in front of a dominant Utes crowd in the Rose Bowl. Utah senses blood in the water and the Utes want it badly.

Utah isn’t going to out-finesse Ohio State because of the tremendous talent OSU has with its receivers, running backs and secondary players. But where Utah can bloody some noses is in the trenches. Utah’s defense ranks 11th in total defense because it is active, unpredictable and capable up the middle and on the edges.

The Utes defense has 41 sacks this season and allows just 3.56 yards per carry, second nationally. This is a recipe to force Stroud to pass and chase his Buckeye butt in the backfield. Ask Oregon, which beat OSU, how that works in two games against the Utes.

Ohio State is a proud football program but getting left out of the CFP picture, getting humiliated by Michigan and having star players opt out of the Rose Bowl is a tell. Then you have OSU having to turn back bowl tickets to Utah fans. That underlines just how shaky OSU’s will and commitment is to be in Pasadena.

Utah needs to punch OSU in the mouth early and before the Buckeyes peek out of their Columbus safety blanket to see what the fuss is about. Whittingham is good at breaking the will of opposing hibernating P5 teams, evidenced in the Fiesta and Sugar bowl wins.

Ohio State 42, Utah 27

If Oregon State, a 24-13 loser to Utah State, scored 42 points and beat Utah by eight points, how in Dante’s “Inferno” do the Utes have a chance to outscore the nation’s No. 1 total offense?

Ohio State amassed an eye-popping 6,617 yards and 54 touchdowns in a schedule that included a Big Ten contingent of defenses. Utah gained 5,572 with 56 touchdowns as the champion of a bipolar Pac-12 that BYU went 5-0 against. Runnerup Oregon was embarrassed by the Big 12’s third-place team Oklahoma 47-32 in the Alamo Bowl.

The Buckeyes can absorb players that opt-out because the program just isn’t an elite member of the college game’s elite dozen blue blood programs, It is a crown prince whose robes are dark purple. OSU’s crowns include 41 conference titles and 15 combined (claimed and unclaimed) national championships.

OSU had future first-round receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson opt-out of the Rose Bowl, but slot receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the team’s leading receiver (80 catches), will play. The young wideouts who will step in include the No. 1 2020 prep WR recruit Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr., whose father was an NFL All-Pro star. The fourth wideout is Emeka Egbuka, who is better than any receiver on Utah’s roster.

So, OSU offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere opted to not play Saturday? Thayer Munford will just slide over and take his place. He started that position for three years.

Stroud has passed for 38 touchdowns and is ticked off that he finished just fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He is back in his home state of California and locked and loaded.

Utah’s offense has come alive under the leadership of Rising, but it ranks 46th nationally. For perspective, the best offense Utah faced this year is No. 17 BYU (a loss), followed by No. 25 USC. Oregon State (a loss) was ranked 44th and that pretender preseason favorite Oregon was 51st. Heck, even Utah State finished 24th nationally in total offense.

Let’s see, the No. 1 offense in college football faces the No. 46 offense. Hmm. Michigan killed OSU and did it with the No.18 offense.

Utah’s Pac-12 title is a paper trophy won over a fraud Oregon team and dysfunctional South Division schools whose fans barely cared to show up. The Buckeyes play big boy ball in a real conference.

Prediction: Utah 28, Ohio State 24.