You probably haven't watched an excessive amount of Utah football this year.
|#11 UTAH UTES
10-3 (9-1 PAC-12)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
5 P.M. – SATURDAY, JAN. 1
Even Ryan Day himself said Sunday that he hadn't seen much of the Utes prior to learning that they would be the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl opponent come New Year's Day, and Ohio State's head coach said he didn't watch the Pac-12 Championship Game between Utah and Oregon this past Friday.
But just because they've flown under the radar doesn't mean the Utes are any less threatening a season-ending foe for the Buckeyes, who will be entering the matchup on the heels of an emotional loss that effectively kept them out of the College Football Playoff – where Ohio State would much prefer to be playing by the start of the new year.
If you're still getting up to speed on the surging Utes, here's five things to know about Utah ahead of the Rose Bowl.
First trip to the Rose Bowl
While Ohio State has a long and storied history with The Granddaddy of Them All (15 previous appearances, to be exact), Utah will be a first-time participant in Rose Bowl festivities over the next month.
In the 11th season of Utah’s tenure in the Pac-12, longtime head coach Kyle Whittingham led the program to both its first conference title and Rose Bowl appearance with Friday’s win over Oregon, placing the 10-3 Utes in Pasadena for a chance to knock off another top-10 team in the sixth-ranked Buckeyes.
Whittingham, who is wrapping up his 17th season at the helm of the program, had already logged five seasons with double-digit wins entering 2021. But this year was just Utah’s third 10-win season as a member of the Pac-12, and its two drubbings of the Ducks over the past three weeks were key in landing the Utes a landmark accomplishment with the conference crown and Rose Bowl berth.
The Utes will have plenty of momentum coming into the Rose Bowl as well, as Utah has now won six straight games with a point differential of 238-90 over its opponents during that stretch. In eight quarters of combined play against Oregon, one of two teams to defeat the Buckeyes this season (not that you needed any reminder), the Utes accumulated a 76-17 advantage.
With another chance to upset the apple cart against a college football power on a grand stage, Utah will not lack any hunger or motivation heading into its season finale.
All three losses by single digits
The three defeats Utah suffered within its first seven games this season don’t look particularly flattering at first glance, but no Ute loss has come by more than a nine-point margin, and two of the three losses were to teams that had a place in the final CFP rankings on Selection Sunday.
Ranked to start the season, the Utes quickly fell out of the AP Top 25 after a 26-17 Week 2 loss to then-unranked BYU. But aside from a loss to Boise State and another to eventual Big 12 champion Baylor, the Cougars won the rest of their games in 2021 to sneak all the way up to No. 12 in Sunday’s CFP rankings.
Utah lost the following week as well, but only on a controversial video review from officials in triple overtime against Brady Hoke and San Diego State that ended the contest on the spot. The Aztecs went on to lose just one game throughout the regular season before falling to Utah State in this past weekend’s Mountain West Championship Game, and Hoke and company still rank No. 24 in the country.
Not to mention, both of those losses came before Cameron Rising became the full-time starting quarterback for the program ahead of Charlie Brewer, who left Utah following the San Diego State loss. Utah did lose to Oregon State with Rising under center, no doubt the worst loss on the Utes’ résumé, but even that defeat only came by eight points.
Utah has been far from immortal in 2021, but it hasn’t exactly been embarrassed in any of its losses, and the Utes will not have tasted defeat in 10 weeks by the time they take on Ohio State.
Elite on the ground
If there’s cause for concern for the Buckeyes when assessing how they stack up against Utah on paper, it’s that the Utes aren’t all that dissimilar to Michigan when it comes to their philosophical approach to winning football games.
Running the ball and stopping the run have been integral to Utah’s success in 2021, and its season statistics only underscore that claim. Utah ranks 14th in the country in rushing offense with an average of 216.5 yards per game, and the Utes allow just 122.69 rushing yards to opponents on average, which is good for 23rd-best in the nation.
Granted, Oregon did not have top running back C.J. Verdell in either game against Utah, but the Ducks ran for just 137 yards combined in both contests. As you’ll recall, Oregon gashed Ohio State for 269 yards and three scores on the ground back on Sept. 11.
The Utes possess the 13th-ranked total defense (318 yards per game) and 23rd-ranked scoring defense (20.6 points per game) in America, and their ability to stop the run has been central to both of those marks. Given that five Utah defenders have at least 7.5 tackles for loss this season, which is more than any single Buckeye has so far, it’s no surprise the Utes have been a stifling bunch.
On offense, only three teams in the country have run for more than Utah’s 35 scores on the ground this season, and 1,000-yard back Tavion Thomas is tied for the national lead with a whopping 20 of those.
Lloyd among nation's best defenders
Choosing which Devin Lloyd stat is most impressive is a rather arduous task.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Utah linebacker has 22 tackles for loss this season – over three times more than any single Buckeye – to go along with eight sacks, 106 total tackles, four interceptions and two returned for touchdowns. No, I’m not kidding.
Devin Lloyd: PFFs LB2 in the 2022 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/k0Ag4Acy2d— PFF (@PFF) December 4, 2021
Whittingham hailed Lloyd as the greatest defender in the history of the program, at least in the modern era of Ute football, on a teleconference Sunday. With the amount of time Whittingham has spent in Salt Lake City, his authority on the subject is probably best left unquestioned.
A projected first-round pick in the 2022 NFL draft, Lloyd is a potential game-wrecker against any offense in the country, and he’s undoubtedly among the best individual defenders Ohio State has gone head-to-head with this season – and if you watched the Michigan game, you know that’s saying something.
Inconspicuous pass attack
Defensively, Utah ranks among the nation’s top 25 teams in nearly every major statistical category. Offensively, the Utes rank in the top 45 in most of them, except for passing offense, where they fall all the way down to No. 87.
With an average of 212.5 yards per game, the Utes have not been electric through the air by any means for most of the season, even if the team has gotten a significant boost from the play of Rising under center following Brewer’s spontaneous midseason exit from the program.
Rising has tallied up 2,279 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions over the course of 10 starts and 12 total appearances this season, and he’s been a threat on the ground as well with 407 yards and five scores rushing. But the Texas transfer has thrown for fewer than 200 yards on eight occasions this season, including each of the past three games. Rising has not completed more than 19 passes in a game since the Utes’ Oct. 23 loss to Oregon State, but considering that they’ve won every game since then, that may not be a negative.
Three Utah receivers have hauled in at least 465 yards this season, although two of them are actually tight ends – leading receiver Brant Kuithe and receiving touchdowns leader Dalton Kincaid – which could lead to some interesting matchups for the Ohio State back seven.
Still, the Buckeye secondary is not likely to see anything resembling a top-flight aerial assault in Pasadena.