Eleven Warriors Roundtable: Playing for Pride in Pasadena

By Chris Lauderback on December 31, 2021 at 9:20 am
The Rose Bowl
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With designs on getting the taste of a Michigan loss out of their mouths, Ryan Day's football Buckeyes are set to battle Utah in the Rose Bowl tomorrow afternoon in Pasadena. 

Ohio State enters the contest as a four-point favorite as opt outs from Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Nicholas Petit-Frere and Haskell Garrett loom over the contest, along with others not seen at Rose Bowl practices including Cody Simon, Sevyn Banks, Antwaun Jackson and Marcus Williamson. 

Meanwhile, Utah enters the game with unquestioned motivation to capture the school's first ever Rose Bowl, and do it against a college football blue blood. 

Make no mistake, Ohio State still has the talent to win this game, particularly on offense, but it feels like the Buckeyes are in for a fight. 

Will Ohio State's depleted defense hold up? How will the offense fare without Olave and Wilson? For answers to those queries and more, I welcome 11W's own Kyle Jones, Griffin Strom and Kevin Harrish to a special Rose Bowl roundtable. 

Many fans are lamenting the opt outs from Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave but I feel like this is a welcome development considering Ohio State opens up with Notre Dame next year and will welcome two new starters at wideout. How comfortable are you that guys like Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. will be ready to complement JSN on Saturday? What kind of output might we expect from both? 

Kyle: I can't say I'm with you on welcoming the absence of Olave and Wilson, as there's no way to replace two of the best players in the country, each of whom is likely to shake Roger Goodell's hand on a Thursday night in late April. Despite what recruiting stars may tell you, first-rounders just don't grow on trees. That said, both guys have shown some flashes in limited playing time, and will likely get plenty of opportunities to show that the future is still bright for the OSU passing game. However, I see JSN having the biggest game of all. With the Utah linebackers keying hard on the run (as I discussed in this week's Film Study), there should be room for the dynamic slot receiver to make plays behind them. If anyone benefits from there being no Olave and Wilson, it will be Smith-Njigba's stat line.

Griffin: With Wilson and Olave starting on the outside this season and Smith-Njigba likely to remain in the slot for the majority of the Rose Bowl, I’d expect to see Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr. get the bulk of the reps in place of Ohio State’s two star wideouts. Neither Fleming nor Harrison has done a whole lot in the sparse opportunities they’ve been given this season, and the Rose Bowl will be a welcome chance for either one to truly break out as 2022 begins. However, I think the Buckeyes will likely lean heavily on the more established Smith-Njigba – who has been on some kind of tear over the past four games – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I believe Egbuka will see the fewest reps of those four on Saturday, but it’s possible that Brian Hartline could move guys around positionally to get him in the mix.

Kevin: I honestly think the opt outs are probably actually good for the Buckeyes in the long run, even if they decidedly hurt their chances in this particular game. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were never coming back anyway, so you were going to have to learn how to play without them between now and next year's season opener regardless. This way, though, they get more practice reps, get to go through all of game prep as a starter, and make their debut start against a top-15 opponent.

I'm not sure I would have *chosen* for Olave and Wilson to opt out of this game, but since they did, I think it is going to be clearly beneficial for the young guys heading into next year. And at the end of the day, I'd rather perform better against Notre Dame next season than against Utah tomorrow.

A key to victory will be Ohio State's ability to stop the run. How concerned should Buckeye fans be about the Utah rushing attack? Any worry running backs Tavion Thomas and TJ Pledger run wild behind a Utes offensive line helping pave the way to 5.6 yards per carry, good for the second-most in the country? 

Kevin: I'm not stoked! I'd like to hope against hope that the Buckeyes have simply "figured it out" between the loss to Michigan and now, but my big fear is that there's nothing really to figure out. Ohio State didn't get mauled against Michigan because they got out-schemed, it was because they got out-toughed and out-executed. If the Wolverines would have called out their precise plays before the snap, I'm fully convinced the result would have been the same. And that makes me nervous against a team that's just as good on the ground.

Kyle: There's quite a bit of worry over here when it comes to this topic. Utah's run game is very reminiscent of Michigan's, both in scheme and physicality, and the Buckeyes will be without their starting defensive tackles and middle linebacker. This aspect of the game, more than any other, may define who wins and loses, and I am not very optimistic that the 2021 Buckeyes will finally figure out how to effectively defend the run in postseason play.

Griffin: There may be no more important question when it comes to this contest. Buckeye fans certainly have reason to be concerned, considering stopping the run has been perhaps the biggest downfall for Ohio State in its two losses this season, even if it was stellar in that department for most of the year. The pursuit will be made no easier by the fact that Haskell Garrett and Antwuan Jackson – both starting defensive tackles for the Buckeyes – could be absent from the Rose Bowl. Garrett opted out and Jackson was not at practice on Tuesday or Wednesday, which suggests that Ohio State will be short-handed on the interior. But the Buckeyes have stifled potent rushing attacks as recently as six weeks ago, so the key question is which group shows up?

Bowl practices are a great time for players looking to play bigger roles next year to step on the gas from a development standpoint. Who is a guy you think might stand out in the Rose Bowl that Ohio State didn't really count on this year but will definitely need next year? (Bonus points for not picking a receiver.)

Griffin: I’m curious to see how much Cade Stover we see in the Rose Bowl since switching from tight end to linebacker in the past few weeks. Ohio State’s transition to a 4-2-5 alignment on defense this season has been well-publicized, but given the run threat Utah possesses, the Buckeyes may look to employ a third linebacker more often against the Utes. Stover has been taking first-team reps at Sam in the couple of open practice periods we got to watch this week, and while I’d be surprised to see him log a lion’s share of Ohio State’s defensive snaps, he might just play more than some people realize. Cody Simon is out, Teradja Mitchell is banged up and Palaie Gaoteote still hasn’t quite gotten off the ground since joining the Buckeyes, which means Stover has quickly ascended the ranks in the position group on short notice.

Kevin: I'm gonna go with Steele Chambers. The dude has only been in the linebackers room for a couple of months and has quickly blossomed into arguably the team's best player at the position. As good as he was this year, you have to figure he's nowhere near his potential, and a who set of bowl practices could help get him there.

Kyle: If there has ever been a time for Tyleik Williams or Ty Hamilton to make a name for themselves, it's this Saturday. With no Haskell Garrett or Antwuan Jackson, OSU will be very thin along the interior of the defensive line. As we covered in the previous question, Ohio State's ability to disrupt the Utah run game will be critical in determining who wins the Rose Bowl, and these two freshmen tackles will be looked on to help fill a very big gap (literally).

How important is it for Ohio State to get off to a fast start on Saturday? Do you sense the Buckeyes might be ripe for lacking fight should they fall behind early? Or is this team primed to show a resolve that was missing against Michigan? 

Kyle: The most effective way of stopping the run is making the opponent pass, and the best way to make them pass is by getting out to an early lead. When the Buckeye have led this year, opponents have averaged just 2.86 yards-per-carry. When they've trailed, that figure balloons to 6.23 ypc. The best way to keep the Utes from controlling the game with their physical running game is to make it redundant, and the best way to do such a thing is to score early and often, just as the Buckeyes did against Kenneth Walker III and Michigan State. If Ryan Day wants to protect his defense, the best thing he can do is be aggressive early when his team has the ball and force the Utes to toss out their game plan and throw the ball more than they'd like.

Griffin: Ohio State has been at its best this season when things go well early. A lightning fast start on both sides of the ball lifted the Buckeyes to their best performance of the season, a 56-7 defeat of Michigan State on Nov. 20, and slow starts foreshadowed eventual doom for Ohio State against Oregon and Michigan. I believe starting off hot could be crucial for the Buckeyes in this one, although I still believe they have the talent to withstand some early adversity.

Kevin: I'm honestly not sure it matters all that much. However, I do think we're going to know really, really early how Ohio State is going to be able to handle Utah's rushing attack. So in that sense, it would be nice for the Buckeyes to show right off the bat that this game is going to be different than the Michigan loss.

Ohio State enters the Rose Bowl as a 4-point favorite. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP. 

Kevin: I have Ohio State winning 45-35. Utah is going to move the ball and score points with its offensive attack, but the Buckeyes have a potent offense, too. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is my game MVP.

Kyle: While Ohio State surely has more talent across its depth chart, Utah couldn't be a worse matchup from a stylistic perspective. With a physical defense capable of slowing the Buckeyes' running game and a near carbon copy of the rushing attack which dominated the Silver Bullets in Ann Arbor last month, the depth along the scarlet and gray sideline will be rendered moot. Utah wins 35-27 with Tavion Thomas finding the end zone three times against the team from back home.

Griffin: I have the Buckeyes winning by just three points in a 34-31 ballgame, which means Ohio State will not cover on Saturday. This may seem like an obvious pick, but I’ll go with JSN as my pick for MVP, as the sophomore seems primed to put up monster numbers if all goes well for Ohio State without Wilson or Olave on the field.

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