Ohio State had aspirations of playing for the national championship, while Utah finally gets to play at that famous New Year’s Day paradise.
The No. 6 Buckeyes look to cast away disappointment and the No. 11 Utes will try to channel their exuberance when the teams meet Saturday in the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif.
Utah (10-3) is playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since joining the Pac-12 for the 2011 season.
The Utes also arrive as one of the hottest teams in the nation with six straight wins and nine in their past 10 games. They pounded Oregon by margins of 31 of 28 points late in the season, the latter in the Pac-12 title game.
Utah’s slow start prevented them from having a College Football Playoff case but they currently fall in that category of teams you don’t want to face.
“I definitely think we’re a top-tier team,” Utah All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd said. “And although we didn’t start off necessarily the way we wanted to, especially as the season progressed, I think they should take into account teams getting better.”
The Buckeyes (10-2) were good most of the season but a loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale prevented them from playing in the Big Ten title game and knocked them out of CFP contention.
Along with it came questions about Ohio State’s will to win.
“I don’t necessarily know if we needed it, but it was kind of like a wakeup call,” defensive end Jack Sawyer said. “Maybe we weren’t playing as tough as we should. Maybe we weren’t playing as hard as we could have every day in practice, taking the little things seriously.”
The Buckeyes are 8-7 in Rose Bowl appearances. The current squad is prolific on offense as they lead the nation in both scoring offense (45.5) and total offense (551.4 yard per game).
Quarterback C.J. Stroud finished fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting and passed for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns against five interceptions.
Running back TreVeyon Henderson rushed for 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns and Jaxon Smith-Njigba led the Buckeyes in receiving (80 receptions for 1,259 yards and six TDs). But Ohio State will be without receivers Garrett Wilson (70 catches for 1,058 yards and 12 TDs) and Chris Olave (65 catches for 936 yards and 13 TDs), who opted out of the game on Monday.
Two other Buckeyes — offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive lineman Haskell Garrett — also have opted out of the bowl game.
Utah will attempt to slow the Buckeyes behind Lloyd, who recorded 22 tackles for loss (including eight sacks) and had four interceptions this season. The Utes limited four of their last five opponents to 13 or fewer points.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising has thrown for 2,279 yards and 18 touchdowns against five interceptions. Tavion Thomas has rushed for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns while Britain Covey returned two punts for scores while averaging 14.7 yards per return.
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham became the school’s leader in all-time victories (144) when his team rolled over Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Utah also is 11-3 in bowl games under Whittingham despite dropping its last two.
“We’ve had a pretty good track record in bowl games. We have a process that we follow and adhere to. It’s been successful for us,” Whittingham said.
“We’ve got a plan in place. Typically our guys do a great job preparing for a bowl game. We’re going to have to, with Ohio State as our opponent. We’re going to need great preparation to have a shot.”
The Buckeyes see themselves as a team with something to prove at the iconic stadium that sits below the San Gabriel Mountains. They lost to Oregon in September and were pushed around by arch-rival Michigan on Nov. 27.
Wolverines offensive coordinator Josh Gattis rubbed salt in the wounds in the aftermath when he said of the Buckeyes: “They’re a finesse team, they’re not a tough team.”
That, of course, didn’t sit well with the Buckeyes.
“We’re as physical as any team in the country,” said Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison, “and I think we’re going to showcase that in the Rose Bowl.”
The Buckeyes won the lone previous meeting with the Utes, 64-6 in 1986.
–Field Level Media