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Rose Bowl: 3 takeaways from Utah’s heartbreaking loss to Ohio State

The Utah Utes defense gang tackle Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (12) during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Utah leads 35-21 at half.
The Utah Utes defense gang tackle Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (12) during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Utah leads 35-21 at half.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl ended in disappointment in a game that provided plenty of highlights worthy of “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

Here are three takeaways from the Utes’ 48-45 loss:

Key fourth downs swing momentum Ohio State’s way

While Utah led much of the game, two fourth down plays in the fourth quarter got Ohio State in position to take control.

The first one came in the first minute of the period as Utah tried to convert a fourth-and-3 at the Ohio State 31. Cam Rising connected with tight end Brant Kuithe for a completion, but Kuithe was stopped a yard short of the line to gain.

Ohio State capitalized on the stop, driving 71 yards for a game-tying touchdown.

Later, the Buckeyes converted their own fourth-down situation. Facing a fourth-and-4 from the Utah 39 with the game tied at 38-all, C.J. Stroud found Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a 9-yard gain to keep the drive alive.

The next play, Stroud hit Smith-Njigba for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes their first lead at 45-38 with 4:22 to play.

While Utah came back to later tie the game, the Buckeyes won on a field goal with under 10 seconds to play, outscoring the Utes 27-10 in the second half.

It was an offensive showcase

Both teams showed off their offensive fireworks on New Year’s Day, though it was all dampened a bit when Utah quarterback Cam Rising left in the fourth quarter with an apparent head injury.

The Utes got off to a stellar start, led by Rising, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 92 yards and a score. Behind their star QB, the Utes got out to a 14-0 lead after one quarter and led by 14 at halftime.

Rising’s 62-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down play was part of a wild three-minute span in the second quarter when five touchdowns were scored.

That included a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Utah’s Britain Covey as well as two 50-yard touchdown catches for Smith-Njigba (50 and 52 yards).

For much of the game, Rising was able to match his counterpart, Heisman finalist Stroud, who had a monster outing and led his team to the comeback, throwing for a school-record 573 yards and six touchdowns while completing 80.4% of his passes.

The biggest benefactor of Stroud’s big night was Smith-Njigba, who had 15 receptions for a Rose Bowl record 347 yards and three touchdowns.

Marvin Harrison Jr. also had a big game for the Buckeyes, with six receptions for 71 yards and three touchdowns.

In all, there were more than 1,100 yards of total offense — 683 from Ohio State and 463 from Utah.

Impressive Utah efforts in a loss

Let’s reflect on a few individual performances in what was a heartbreaking loss for a Utes program making its first appearance in the Rose Bowl.

Covey, who had already declared for the 2022 NFL draft before the game, gave fans one last stellar game to remember him by.

In addition to his kickoff return for a touchdown — the first of his career — Covey also scored Utah’s first points on a 19-yard pass early in the first quarter.

He had three catches for 34 yards, added two carries for 10 yards and clearly had Ohio State thinking about their kickoff strategy after his KO return for a score.

Then after Ohio State went up 45-38 and with Rising out, he put Utah in favorable field position with a 19-yard kickoff return to the Utes 43, setting up the team’s final touchdown.

Speaking of Utah’s final possession, backup quarterback Bryson Barnes — a freshman from Milford, Utah, who came in after Rising exited the game — showed plenty of grit in leading the Utes’ final scoring drive.

Barnes led a 57-yard touchdown drive, hitting Dalton Kincaid for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:54 to play. Barnes converted a third-and-1 with a 10-yard keeper and completed both of his pass attempts for 23 yards.

Defensively, cornerback Clark Phillips III made several impact plays for Utah. He finished the game with five tackles and a pass breakup, but his two biggest plays led to turnovers.

First, Phillips stripped Smith-Njigba of the ball inside the Utah 10 after a 50-yard reception in the second quarter and fellow defensive back Cole Bishop fell on the ball in the end zone.

Then on the first drive of the second half, Phillips maintained Utah’s two-touchdown lead by intercepting Stroud in the end zone after Ohio State quickly moved the ball into Utes territory.