Football: No. 6 Ohio State looks to close out season on high note with Rose Bowl win

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Coaches Kyle Wittingham and Ryan Day in front of the Rose Bowl trophy during the press conference on Friday. Credit: Gabe Haferman | Assistant Photo Editor

No. 6 Ohio State’s regular season finale left a sour taste in the team’s mouth.

The Buckeyes (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) were outclassed by their bitter rival then-No. 5 Michigan in a 42-27 loss which kept them out of the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff. But, Ohio State has a chance to redeem itself against the Pac-12 champion, No. 11 Utah (10-3, 9-1 Pac-12) in the 108th Rose Bowl.

Head coach Ryan Day said this game serves multiple purposes, including giving the youth on the team experience in a big game and sending their seniors off on the right foot.

“It’s been a great opportunity for our guys over the last month to really practice, for the young guys to build some momentum as we head into this game, and then obviously into the offseason next year,” Day said. “For the older guys, we really want to finish the season the right way. So far, it’s been an excellent week of preparation. Our guys have been practicing hard and looking forward to the game.”

Utah produced one the best seasons in program history, winning its first Pac-12 championship — since joining the conference in 2011 — and qualifying for the Rose Bowl for the first time. But, after a 1-2 start — with losses to San Diego State and rival BYU — Utah looked to be headed for a disappointing season.

The Utes won nine of their last 10 games, including a 38-10 drubbing of the then-No. 10 Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 title game. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the turning point for his squad came when they turned to sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising — who replaced then-starter and senior Charlie Brewer during the San Diego State game.

“T hought we needed a spark, made the change, put Cam Rising in the game, provided the spark immediately, brought us all the way back to triple overtime,” Whittingham said. “We ended up obviously losing the game, but it was very apparent that he was what we needed. He proceeded to start the rest of the season and just got better and better as the weeks went on.”

Rising threw for 2,279 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season, while adding 407 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

While Rising paces the Utes through the air, a trio of talented running backs paces Utah on the ground — headlined by sophomore Tavion Thomas.

Thomas — a Dayton native — grew up as an Ohio State fan and was recruited by the Buckeyes in high school, but things fell through. The standout running back said he wants to show his home state team “what they missed out on.”

Thomas rushed for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season — leading the Utes to the No. 13 ranked rushing offense in the country. Ohio State has struggled heavily against the run this season, allowing 118.5 rushing yards per game — including allowing 200-plus yards on the ground in its two losses.

With attention to Utah’s prowess in the running game, senior defensive end Tyreke Smith said the Buckeyes need to slow down the Utes’ ground attack in order to leave Los Angeles victorious.

“They want to get around the edge. They want to stretch the ball around the edge. They want to try to seal you off and try to get that ball running,” Smith said. “If they can keep running, they’re going to keep running on you. That’s the main thing. You’ve got to stop the run.”

Defensively, Utah is led by star junior linebacker Devin Lloyd — who serves as a swiss army knife on the Utes’ defense. Lloyd racked up 106 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and eight sacks while adding four interceptions in pass coverage.

Junior defensive end Mika Tafua supports Lloyd on the defensive end, leading the Pac-12 in sacks with 9.5.

Lloyd and Tafua’s efforts helped Utah stake out the Pac-12’s best defense, allowing just 20.5 points and 317.4 yards per game.

Freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson pointed to Utah’s physicality on the defensive side of the ball as a reason for their success.

“They got a great defense. They got some players who can move around the field, make a lot of plays. Especially the linebackers,” Henderson said. “It’s going to be a physical game, it’s going to be a hard game.”

The Utes have been fueled by tragedy during their historic run, with the deaths of players Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan hanging over the program this season. Through these difficult times, Utah banded together behind the leadership of its 18-year head coach Whittingham.

With attention to his team’s resolve in the face of grief, Whittingham said his team continued to grow closer as the season wore on.

“We just, as a football team, banded together. We had a mantra. We’re going to get through this, we’ll never get over it, but we will get through it,” Whittingham said. “Can’t say enough for our guys and particularly the leaders, the captains and the upperclassmen of how they kept things together. And the chemistry on this team just kept getting better and better as the year went on.”

The Buckeyes have some unfinished business of their own, looking to put the difficult loss to Michigan behind them. Despite missing their ultimate goal of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State has no lack of motivation for this game, Day said.

But, Ohio State will be without four key contributors in wide receivers senior Chris Olave and junior Garrett Wilson, redshirt junior offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and graduate defensive tackle Haskell Garrett as they decided to opt out of the Rose Bowl ahead of the 2022 NFL draft.

Although Ohio State will be without those important pieces, Day said he’s looking forward to seeing younger guys get an opportunity to play in such an important game.

“I think certainly we’ve had our adversity over the last month, but what a great opportunity for some of our younger guys to come in and start this thing off the right way,” Day said. “It’s a big challenge for our guys.”

For the team’s veterans, this game gives them the opportunity to leave Ohio State on a high note. Graduate tight end Jeremy Ruckert said the only way the Buckeyes will do that is if they match Utah’s physicality and energy.

“We need to play physical. I think we need to play tough. Just trust our training and trust everything we’ve done in the past month,” Ruckert said. “I think we’ve practiced well. And I think we’re really excited to be out here at the Rose Bowl and go out on a high note.”

The Buckeyes and Utes kick off at 5 p.m. Eastern and will be televised on ESPN.

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