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Why going to the Rose Bowl means different things for Utah, Ohio State

While this marks the Utes’ first trip to the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes are going for the 16th time.

Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah Utes players celebrate after they beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The Utes now move on to the Rose Bowl.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For Utah’s football program, which began playing the sport in 1892, receiving the official invitation Sunday to play in the Rose Bowl marks a monumental milestone.

Not only that, but the No. 11 Utes (10-3), the Pac-12 champion, will square off against a storied program in No. 6 Ohio State of the Big Ten in the New Year’s Day contest in Pasadena, California.

“For us, it’s a great opportunity for our program. It’s the next step in the evolution of our program, getting to the Rose Bowl. Most years, that’s what the Pac-12 champion gets to experience,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team jumped up six spots in the final College Football Playoff rankings released Sunday.

“It was the next step and the next goal for our program. It’s something we’ve been shooting for and had our sights on for a number of years. We’ve finally been able to get over that mountain and we’re very excited to have that opportunity. … This bowl game is second-to-none.”

The Rose Bowl game is nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Them All” because it is the oldest operating bowl game, dating back to 1902. Ohio State coach Ryan Day called it “the most prestigious bowl game in all of college football.”

The Utes earned their spot in the Rose Bowl after thumping Oregon 38-10 in the Pac-12 Championship game last Friday.

As for the Buckeyes (10-2), a program that sets their sights every year on College Football Playoff berths and national championships, the Rose Bowl is quite the consolation prize.

Ohio State was ranked No. 2 in the CFP rankings after blasting Michigan State 56-7 on Nov. 20. A week later, Ohio State lost at archrival Michigan 42-27. The Wolverines finished No. 2 in the final CFP polls Sunday and they face No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31.

While OSU is disappointed by the way its regular season ended, a Rose Bowl appearance is special.

“A tradition-rich bowl like the Rose Bowl means a lot for all of us. You think of all the great players and the great coaches that have coached before in this game and then to play a really good opponent like Utah, the Pac-12 champ, it’s very significant for us,” Day said.

“We’re certainly always looking to win championships here but I know our guys have a lot of pride in themselves and in the Buckeyes. We’re looking forward to playing in Pasadena. … Those are the two things that you’re looking for — a prestigious bowl and a great opponent. Now we’ll go about the business of preparing for this game.”

The two programs have met only one time, in 1986, when the Buckeyes clobbered the Utes 64-6 in Columbus. While OSU and Utah have that limited history — one matchup that took place 35 years ago — they have at least one other key connection.

Urban Meyer coached at both Utah (2003-04) and Ohio State (2012-2018). In fact both Whittingham and Day took over for Meyer when he left those respective jobs.

While this marks the Utes’ first Rose Bowl appearance, the Buckeyes have played in this game 15 times, including three years ago when they downed Washington 28-23 in Meyer’s final game as Ohio State’s coach. OSU has won its last three Rose Bowl games.

Utah, meanwhile, has been waiting for this opportunity ever since it joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

“Everybody in Salt Lake is elated to be heading down to southern California for the Rose Bowl,” Whittingham said. “We’re excited to come down and experience it. I’ve got a lot of buddies, old USC guys, that have been to the Rose Bowl several times and they say there’s nothing that compares to it. We’ll travel well. It’s something the community is very fired up about.”

Since Friday, Whittingham said he received over 600 text messages from former players and coaches, congratulating him and his team on their accomplishment.

“I just finished responding to every one of them,” Whittingham said. “No easy task.”

Athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement the program is thrilled to be able to compete on this massive stage.

“To get the call today from Laura Farber, president of the Tournament of Roses, and formally receive the invitation on behalf of the University of Utah and this incredible football program was an exciting moment,” he said.

“It was an honor to accept, and I cannot thank coach Whittingham, his staff and the student-athletes enough for their incredible fortitude all season to make this a reality. We are very grateful, and cannot wait for Jan. 1.”

While this will be the Utes’ first Rose Bowl, they have two prior appearances in a New Year’s Six bowls — winning the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh and the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) throws a pass in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Tony Ding, Associated Press

The Buckeyes average a nation-leading 45.5 points per game while giving up an average of just 20.9 points per game.

Quarterback C.J. Stroud has passed for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns while running back TreVeyon Henderson has run for 1,172 yards and 15 touchdowns. Receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson have combined for 31 touchdowns and more than 3,200 yards.

Defensively, tackle Haskell Garrett has recorded 5.5 sacks while safety Ronnie Hickman has tallied 95 tackles and two interceptions.

“Ohio State — what a tremendous opponent. I’ve been doing a little bit of homework since we found out who our opponent is going to be and there is no weakness, I can tell you that,” Whittingham said.

“They throw the ball well, they run it well, they score, they defend. They have a 1,000-yard rusher, a couple of thousand-yard receivers and another guy on the verge of it. So we have our hands full. It’s going to be a great challenge for our team but all our guys are excited about it. It’s going to be a great experience for our players.”

Day said Utah, which has won nine of its last 10 games, is a tough opponent.

“Nothing but the utmost respect for coach Whittingham. A true gentleman, somebody that’s been at Utah for a long time. It says a lot about who he is to be there for so long,” he said.

“They run the ball well and play really good defense because of that, they’ve won a lot of games. It’s going to be a really big challenge. They’re playing well down the stretch. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and his program. That’s what you want, to play against a really good opponent.”

Whittingham was in Florida on Sunday for a recruiting trip. He said he’ll return to campus for a meeting with his players Monday afternoon.

Day met with his team Sunday to talk about the next challenge.

“Our players are excited to find out we’re playing in the Rose Bowl,” he said. “An unbelievable opponent, a beautiful setting and everyone here at Ohio State is excited to play in this game.”

And for Utah, to be in the Rose Bowl is a long-awaited, monumental milestone.