PASADENA, Calif. (ABC4) – The Utah football program has already had a magical season, winning its first-ever Pac-12 title in the memory of two fallen teammates. On Saturday, the No. 11-ranked Utes will attempt to put a cherry on top of their 2021 campaign by snagging a Rose Bowl victory on the first day of 2022.
They’ll have their work cut out for them against No. 6-ranked Ohio State, one of the most high-powered teams in the country.
With all the roses on the line, here’s a preview of the game, which will be shown on ABC4 on Saturday at 3 p.m.:
The road to Pasadena:
The Rose Bowl is typically slated to host a pair of conference champions, one from the Pac-12 Conference and the other from the Big Ten Conference, unless, of course, one of those championship winners qualifies to play in the College Football Playoff.
That’s precisely what happened in the Big Ten Conference, which was won by Michigan, who earned their way into the playoff as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. Michigan’s advancement to play for a national title opened the door for an at-large team to get the nod to the Rose Bowl, placing Ohio State in the Granddaddy of Them All.
Utah, after starting the season 1-2, caught fire in the second half of the season, winning 6 straight to end the season and snagging the school’s first-ever Pac-12 football title and an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. Of course, the Utes were inspired and motivated to honor their fallen teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, who were both killed in separate firearm-related incidents. A switch to Cam Rising as quarterback also provided a big boost in turning the season around.
While the Utes are playing their best football of the year, Ohio State presents perhaps the biggest challenge of the season on the biggest stage of all. Despite a pair of huge wins over Oregon, who beat Ohio State early in the season, it should be noted that the Ducks ended their season with a whimper (or some kind of feebly sounding quack). The team from Eugene lost three of their last four, including both losses to Utah, and only squeaked out a narrow win over Oregon State in the final regular-season game of the year.
Reeling from the departure of their head coach, Mario Cristobal, who took the top job at Miami, the Ducks turned in an uninspired effort in their Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Even though Ohio State didn’t exactly end its season a roar either, a 42-27 loss to Michigan knocked them out of conference championship and College Football Playoff contention, the Buckeyes are still stacked, especially on offense. Besides their other loss to Oregon, which now looks inexplicable, they were playing as one of the top teams in the nation for most of the season.
What the experts are saying:
Look away, Utah fans. Most of the experts, including the oddsmakers in Vegas, are giving Ohio State the edge on Saturday. The Buckeyes are entering the matchup as a 6.5-point favorite with many national pundits touting their offense as one of the best in the game. The numbers back up the praise. When Ohio State has the ball, the Buckeyes are fast, dangerous, and a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
They’re led by a Heisman Trophy finalist in C.J. Stroud, who in just his first season as a starter threw for over 3,800 yards with 38 touchdowns. His stats were largely assisted by the fact that he had three or four of the top wide receivers in football, two of whom won’t be playing in the game. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson have both opted out in favor of preparing for the NFL Draft. While their absence will surely lighten the weight of Utah’s responsibility on defense, the Utes will still have to find a way to stop or slow down the best receiver on the team, Jaxon Smith-Njigba. The Buckeyes’ running game is not to be overlooked either, with a 1,000-plus yard rusher in TreVeyon Henderson.
Fortunately for the Utes, the strength of their team is the defense. Remember that high-flying Oregon team that beat Ohio State 35-28 in September? Utah held them to just 17 points over two full games in November and December. Linebacker Devin Lloyd, who many consider a surefire first-rounder in the NFL draft, will be tasked with leading the Utah defense. Getting a rush on Stroud will be key, however, and defensive end Mika Tafua, the conference leader in sacks, is likely the best man possible for the job. For Utah to have a fighting chance on Saturday, the Utes will have to transform Pasadena into Sack Lake City.
A shared coaching connection:
Both Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day have an interesting connection. They’re both members of the same coaching tree, branching off as successors to Urban Meyer, who had a disastrous and brief tenure with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars this year.
Whittingham took over the reins at Utah after Meyer left for Florida following the 2004 season. Day inherited the Ohio State program after Meyer stepped away from coaching and took a brief retirement in 2018.
Since taking control of the Utes 17 years ago, Whittingham has cemented himself as perhaps one of the greatest coaching figures in the history of sports in the Beehive State. He’s the winningest coach ever at Utah, led the Utes to an undefeated season in 2008, navigated the program’s move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 Conference, and has sent dozens of players to the NFL.
Day, in his own right, has been terrific at Ohio State, his first head coaching job after years as an assistant. In just three seasons, he’s won the Big Ten Conference twice while racking up a 33-4 record.
A New Year’s Tradition:
Whether or not, you’re a hardcore fan of football, the Rose Bowl has been an American staple of the New Year. Played in the stadium that shares the same name as the game itself (except for 2020, when it was played in Texas due to the pandemic) the Rose Bowl marks the start of the new year, not only with a football contest but with a giant celebration off the field.
The Rose Parade, which begins earlier in the day, is arguably just as iconic as the game and stadium itself, with intricate floats with tons and tons of flowers adorning most of them. LeVar Burton, most famously known as the host of the children’s television program, Reading Rainbow, will serve as the honorary grandmaster of the parade.
A trio of Utah teenagers have been selected to perform as members of the Bands of America Honor Band. One of them, Dallen DiCesaris from Park City High School, excitedly mentioned to ABC4.com in a text message that he would be at the front of the group, proudly and loudly playing his trombone.
The fun begins early in the day on the first morning of the new year, at 9 a.m. on ABC4. The game between Utah and Ohio State for all the roses will kick off at 3 p.m. on ESPN.