PASADENA, California (WCMH) — Anything short of a spot in the College Football Playoff is considered a disappointing season for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are out of the CFP for the first time in three years, but can end the season on a high when they face Utah at 5:00 EST in the Rose Bowl.
The Buckeyes are making their 16th Rose Bowl appearance and second in four years. Meanwhile, Utah will be playing in the "Granddaddy of them All" for the first time after beating Oregon in the Pac 12 championship game.
"You should know we're still motivated," offensive tackle Thayer Munford said. "People might think we're not motivated but we are, especially with that loss to That Team Up North."
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday's game:
New faces on OSU's offense
On offense, stand-out receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, along with offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, decided to forgo the Rose Bowl and declare for the NFL Draft.
That means true freshmen receivers Emeka Egbuka and Marvis Harrison Jr. will get plenty of reps, along with sophomore Julian Fleming, who’s been injured for most of his college career.
“The real deal early on will be to get them to settle down even though we’re playing with the hype of the Rose Bowl, the opponent we’re playing, the exposure of TV in a big game,” OSU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “You came here to play in these games and now it’s your time. It’s a great opportunity to springboard and jump-start your next season.”
Ohio State will move Munford back to left tackle after playing left guard most of the season Petit-Frere is unavailable. Taking over at left guard will be junior Matt Jones who played regularly this season. The rest of the Buckeyes' starting line will look the same, but keep an eye out to see if younger players, like true freshman Donovan Jackson and redshirt freshman Josh Fryar, are given an opportunity against the Utes.
Stop the rock (can't stop the rock?)
All of Buckeye nation, and maybe even Apollo 440, want to know: Can Ohio State stop the rock? It's been the biggest storyline leading up to the Rose Bowl after the Buckeyes gave up 297 yards rushing to Michigan.
“Yeah it definitely left a bad taste in our mouth, but we put that game behind us,” sophomore defensive back Ronnie Hickman said. “Our main focus is on Utah and trying to send the seniors out the right way.”
Utah’s rushing attack is just as formidable as Michigan. The Utes average 5.61 yards per rush (2nd best in the nation) and 216.1 yards per game (13th best in the country).
“The thing that jumps off the table right away is their physicality,” defensive play-caller and safeties coach Matt Barnes said. “They try to run the ball downhill, they’re big up front and they do a really good job.”
Barnes said the Utes have an NFL-style offense, utilizing multiple tight end personnel sets while incorporating a healthy dose of pre-snap shifts and motions.
“They want to stretch the ball around the edge, they want to try to seal you off,” senior defensive end Tyreke Smith said. “Those [running] backs, you got to make them feel you. You got to put bodies on them.”
Stopping the run will be even more challenging for the Buckeyes after All-American defensive tackle Haskell Garrett declared for the NFL Draft. True freshman DT Tyleik Williams showed flashes of dominance throughout the season and he'll be given a larger with Garrett's absence.
Buckeyes #1 offense will be challenged
Ohio State's offense is one of the most explosive in the country, especially through the air:
- #1 scoring offense (45.5 points per game)
- #2 pass efficiency (178.49)
- #2 yards per attempt (9.8)
- #4 pass yards per game (364.9)
- #5 pass touchdowns (40)
But the Buckeyes will get a challenge from Utah, which ranks 24th nationally in pass yards allowed (195.3 per game) and is tied for 6th nationally in total sacks (42). Defensive end Mika Tafua leads the Pac 12 in sacks (9.5) while his teammate, linebacker Devin Lloyd, racked up eight sacks this season. Both players announced they will enter the NFL Draft following the Rose Bowl.
"They do a lot of good things. Number 0, Devin Lloyd, he does a great job. He's an all-world player," OSU quarterback C.J. Stroud said. They've got some good DBs, the safety does a great job of reading eyes . . . The D-line, number 42 [Tafua] and number 7 [Van Fillinger] 7 do a good job of creating pass rush."
OSU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson called Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham an 'elder statesman' of college football and credits his coaching style with the way Utah plays.
"They're aggressive with what they do," Wilson said. "Defensively, they're one of the best in the nation. I think someone said they don't have a lot of interceptions, but they're one of the tops in the nation in pass breakups. That means you're still playing good pace."
Utah's aggressiveness shows up in the run game as well with the Utes ranking 20th nationally in rush yards allowed per game (120.1) while the Buckeyes average 186.5 yards on the ground.