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Utah football report card: Offense shines, defense struggles in Rose Bowl loss

Utah Utes offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni, wearing white, mourns the loss to Ohio State
Utah Utes offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni (77) mourns the loss to Ohio State during to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Ohio State won 48-45.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Buckeyes had the ball last.

In an instant classic Rose Bowl game, which featured 93 combined points between Utah and Ohio State, the team that had the ball last was going to win.

The Buckeyes had the ball with two minutes left, and after scoring points on each of its past four drives against a banged-up Utah secondary, it seemed inevitable that Ohio State would get the go-ahead score.

Noah Ruggles’ 19-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with nine seconds left, capping a 56-yard drive, giving Ohio State its ninth Rose Bowl win in program history, and dealing Utah a heartbreaking loss.

Here are the grades from the Utes’ Rose Bowl loss:

Offense

The first half of the Rose Bowl has to rank up there with one of the best halves ever played by a Utah offense.

The Utes had 35 points and 324 total yards in the first half.

Cam Rising was dealing. He was 11 for 15 for 158 yards and two touchdowns, plus rushed 62 yards for another.

Tavion Thomas had a touchdown, Micah Bernard caught a touchdown, Britain Covey had a kick return touchdown and caught a touchdown, and Brant Kuithe was making plays.

Everything was going perfect for Utah.

In the second half, the Utes’ offense fizzled a little bit, only scoring a field goal in the third quarter as Ohio State chipped away at the lead.

As fourth quarter got underway, two things happened that changed the complexion of the game.

First, Ohio State stopped Utah on a fourth-and-3 pass from the Buckeyes’ 31-yard line from Rising to Kuithe that was just short of the line to gain.

Ohio State tied the game on the ensuing series, then, with 10 minutes left, Rising was sacked by Kourth Williams II and hit his head on the ground. Rising wouldn’t return.

Bryson Barnes, the walk-on who played for 1A Milford, nearly gave this game a Hollywood ending by leading a 57-yard touchdown drive, culminating in a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Kincaid, tying the game with 1:54 to play.

Utah’s run game wasn’t as dominating it has in some games this season, with 138 non-quarterback rushing yards.

Utah’s offense didn’t play as well in the second half as the first half, and the Utes were outscored 27-10 in the second half, but scoring 45 points is usually enough to win the game.

Teams that scored 45 or more points were 224-13 this season.

Grade: A-

Defense

Let’s begin with the caveat that Utah’s cornerback situation entering the game was dismal.

With multiple cornerbacks injured, the Utes turned to running back Bernard at cornerback.

Utah had three-star cornerbacks like Elisha Lloyd, Lacarea Pleasant-Johnson and Caine Savage available, but the coaches clearly felt like Bernard was the best option.

Bernard was given the nearly impossible task of covering Ohio State’s speedy receivers, while also playing on offense, where he had a receiving touchdown.

Bernard did the best he could in a very tough situation, but Ohio State smelled blood in the water, and went after him time and time again.

Utah forced punts on Ohio State’s first two drives of the game, and with a 14-0 lead, it looked like the Utes could perhaps pull away. Maybe it would be a repeat of the 2009 Sugar Bowl, where Utah punched Alabama in the mouth and won 31-17.

Then Ohio State scored three consecutive touchdowns.

By the time it was all said and done, quarterback C.J. Stroud threw a Rose Bowl-record 573 passing yards and six touchdowns and Jaxon Smith-Njigba had 347 receiving yards and three touchdowns, setting a record for any FBS bowl game.

Utah’s defensive line could not get pressure on Stroud and didn’t sack him all night. Stroud picked apart the Utah defense, showing why he was a Heisman finalist.

Some of the throws Stroud made were absolutely perfect, placed where only his receiver could get it. On others, the receiver was simply wide open.

Ohio State’s offense was on fire for pretty much the whole game.

One of the bright spots on defense, Clark Phillips III had an interception and forced a fumble that saved a touchdown.

Overall, though, it was a rough outing for the Utes. With the performance of the offense, just a stop or two would have won the game.

Grade: D+

Special Teams

Another mixed bag from special teams.

Starting with the positive, Covey, in his last game as a Ute and on the biggest stage of his career, scored a kickoff return touchdown, the first of his career. Covey had seven kickoff returns for 208 yards in a fantastic performance.

Following Phillips’ interception, the Utes went three and out. Though Utah punter Cameron Pealsey had already punted twice earlier in the game, the Utes brought Michael Williams on to punt, up 14 early in the third quarter. Williams fumbled the snap, Ohio State took over on downs and then scored a touchdown.

That was a big momentum swing.

The Utes also allowed way too many yards on kickoff returns, which set the Buckeyes up with great field position all game long. Ohio State had 233 kickoff return yards, including a 33-yard return by Emeka Egbuka on the final drive that set Ohio State up at their own 42-yard line.

If not for Covey’s kick return touchdown, the Utes would have received failing marks here.

Grade: C-