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Utah ‘just didn’t have quite enough in the tank’ in classic Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State

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Utah Utes receiver Solomon Enis, right, talks with tight end Brant Kuithe during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Jan. 1, 2022.

Utah Utes wide receiver Solomon Enis (21) talks with Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) after he wasn’t able to make a catch during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Ohio State won 48-45.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PASADENA, Calif. — There wasn’t a College Football Playoff game held Saturday at the Rose Bowl, but No. 11 Utah and No. 6 Ohio State staged a memorable, high-scoring battle worthy of one. 

The Utes and Buckeyes provided more entertainment and drama on New Year’s Day than the two CFP semifinals on New Year’s Eve combined.

With the Goodyear Blimp hovering in the bright blue California sky above and the San Gabriel Mountains serving as the backdrop, a crowd of 87,842, wearing either Ute-red or Buckeye-red, witnessed a Rose Bowl and a New Year’s Six classic.

“I’m sure the fans and the networks got their money’s worth out of that one,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It was a heck of a football game.”

In game that featured brilliant individual performances, some improbable heroes, and a heart-pounding conclusion, Ohio State handed Utah a heartbreaking 48-45 loss on Noah Ruggles’ 19-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining. 

To win, the Utes needed to outscore the nation’s No. 1 scoring team — and they almost did. 

But Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback C.J. Stroud, who completed 37 of 46 passes for 573 yards, six touchdowns and one interception, rallied the Buckeyes from an 35-21 second-quarter deficit.

OSU didn’t claim its first lead until 4:22 remaining in the game, 45-38.

At that point, it appeared Ohio State might have the game in hand because Utah quarterback Cam Rising had been knocked out of the contest due to an injury with less than 10 minutes left. 

“I don’t think he ever lost consciousness. I wasn’t there right when he hit the turf obviously,” Whittingham said. “I came out there shortly thereafter. He should be OK.”

When Rising left the game, the coaching staff decided to insert freshman walk-on Bryson Barnes, from Milford, Utah. On his second drive, Barnes calmly led the Utes on a possession that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid to tie the game at 45-apiece with 1:54 after the PAT.

“Couldn’t be more proud of what Bryson Barnes did when he came into a tough situation and led the team right down the field for the tying touchdown,” Whittingham said.

“Had an inclination to go for two right then, but too much time left on the clock. Had there been under a minute, would have gone for two. That was the mindset. They had a full two minutes, and the analytics said not to do it either at that point, so we just went for one. But Cam will be OK, and proud of Bryson Barnes for what he did.”

Those final two minutes gave Stroud plenty of time for a game-winning drive. 

Utah, making its Rose Bowl debut, had plenty of motivation Saturday. Some thought Ohio State lacked motivation, considering it is used to playing in the CFP — including losing in last year’s title game against Alabama.

Plus, OSU had four players, including two of its top receivers, opt out of the game earlier in the week.

The Buckeyes trailed the entire game but after falling behind early, roared back and kept it close. 

“We were shorthanded, and there were some guys who weren’t here today. For us to respond the way we did at halftime and to come out and play in the second half says a lot about the character of this team to win this game,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day.

“That Utah team is a very, very good team. They’re well coached, very good players. Tremendous amount of respect for them. They played their tails off tonight in an unbelievable game.”

The Utes were shorthanded, too. Running back Micah Bernard started at cornerback due to injuries in the Utes’ secondary. He led the team with 10 tackles and also rushed for 31 yards and scored a touchdown. 

“We felt he was our best option at corner. We had three of our top four corners down. That’s no excuse because you’ve got to play with who you’ve got healthy,” Whittingham said.

“It was the plan to play him sparingly on offense, full-time on defense, and actually no special teams work with the exception of he was the off return on the kickoff return for the first couple, then we subbed him out of that as well. Yeah, Micah, he gave us everything he had, and we appreciate his coverage for making that change.”

Bernard also had to cover one of the top wide receivers in the country, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who caught 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. 

The Utes (10-4) and Buckeyes (11-2) combined to score 56 first-half points, tying a Rose Bowl record first set by Oregon and Wisconsin in 2012. They ended up scoring a total of 93 points (the record is 101 in 2017, when USC beat Penn State 52-49). 

The two teams combined for 1,146 yards of total offense. Utah had 463 yards and OSU amassed 683.

For the Utes, the game followed a familiar script from Pac-12 play, with them jumping out to an early lead and pulling away. On their second drive, they went up-tempo and scored easily, and quickly, on a five-play, 56-yard drive that took just 1:37 off the clock, capped by Britain Covey’s 19-yard touchdown catch. 

Utah struck again against Ohio State on its next possession when Bernard hauled in a spectacular 12-yard touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone to lift the Utes to a 14-0 lead. 

But the Buckeyes responded early in the second quarter. Their offense started to find a rhythm as Emeka Egbuka caught a 30-yard pass from Stroud. Later, on fourth-and-1 from the 25-yard line, Stroud threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison Jr. to cut the deficit to 14-7. 

But that burst of OSU momentum didn’t last for long. Utah’s ensuing possession resulted in a nine-play, 79-yard touchdown drive as Thomas scored from six yards out. And Utah led 21-7. 

The 42-point second quarter featured four touchdowns on five plays midway through the period. 

As part of that, OSU’s Smith-Njigba scored on a 50-yard touchdown catch, followed by an electrifying 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Covey, and a 52-yard TD catch by Smith-Njigba to make the score 28-21 for Utah.

At times, it looked like the 108th Rose Bowl might produce 108 points. 

A couple of minutes later, on fourth-and-1 from the Ute 38-yard line, Rising ran the ball, spun outside of the pile and sprinted down the sideline for a 62-yard score to give Utah a 35-21 advantage. 

But that’s not all. 

Smith-Njigba caught another long pass and looked poised to score — before Clark Phillips III knocked the ball out at the 3-yard line, which was recovered in the end zone by Cole Bishop. 

The third quarter opened with Phillips intercepting a Stroud pass in the end zone. 

But at the end of Utah’s next series, punter Michael Williams fumbled the snap, which was recovered by OSU at the Ute 11-yard line. The Buckeyes capitalized with a Stroud-to-Harrison touchdown pass. At that point, Ohio State trailed 38-28.

With 2:53 left in the quarter, a 31-yard Buckeye field goal cut the deficit to 38-31.

Then early in the fourth quarter, the Utes had fourth-and-3 from the OSU 21. Instead of trying a field goal, Utah went for it. The Buckeyes got the stop that led to tying the game at 38. 

The Utes couldn’t regain the lead.

Despite the loss, Whittingham is proud of his players.  

“They got absolutely nothing to hang their head about. They fought the entire 60 minutes and came up short, but still made Utah football history this year. Pac-12 champions, which had never been done in our program,” he said.

“It’s been a terrific season. Yeah, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t win the game this afternoon, but that’s how life goes. Give all the credit to Ohio State. Like I said, they’re very talented, and we just didn’t have quite enough in the tank tonight to get the job done.”