Rose Bowl Preview: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 7 Utah

After starting the season unranked, a young and feisty Penn State squad ends the season in Pasadena.

(#9) Penn State (10-2, 7-2) vs. (#7) Utah (10-3, 7-2)

Kickoff: 5 p.m., Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA

The Betting Line: Penn State +2 (Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.)

TV: ESPN, 5 pm – Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)

Weather: Highs in the upper-50s with showers expected in the evening.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 77-36, 9th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 101-51, 12th Year

BOWL RECORD: 5-5

VS. UTAH: 0-0

Kyle Whittingham:

UTAH RECORD: 154-73, 18th Year

OVERALL RECORD: Same

BOWL RECORD: 11-4

VS. PENN STATE: 0-0

FUN FACTS

Penn State and Utah will be meeting for the 109th Rose Bowl Game…it is the first-ever meeting between the two programs on the gridiron…Penn State will be making its fifth all-time appearance in the Rose Bowl, with its first appearance came a century ago in 1923…this will be Utah’s second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl after falling to Ohio State in a 48-45 heartbreaker a year ago.

UTAH OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

The Utes offense is led by two-year starting quarterback Cam Rising, a gritty leader who knows how to get the most out of the Utah offense. Rising has seen steady improvement since taking over the job in 2021, and finished the season with a 66.2 completion percentage and 25 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Utah is a run-heavy team, but do not hesitate to let Rising carry the day with his arm. Rising is similar to Sean Clifford in many ways in terms of style and ability, but while Clifford can run hot and cold, Rising is mostly the same quarterback from series to series. The one outlier is a poor performance in a loss to Oregon where he tossed for just 170 yards with three interceptions and no touchdowns. He also struggled in a 45-20 win against Arizona, although injuries were the most likely culprit rather than a lack of consistency.

Rising won’t pile up a big day with his legs, but strategically finds about 35 yards on the ground each game to keep drives moving.

The biggest absence for either team is Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, as he is recovering from an injury as he begins to prepare for the NFL Draft. Kincaid was the most reliable presence of the Utes offense outside of Rising, and seemed to always rise to the occasion whenever the Utes desperately needed a play. Someone else will need to step up in the big moments to keep the Utah offense on the field. Kincaid was the team’s leading receiver with 70 catches for 890 yards and eight touchdowns.

Utah was forced to move pieces around the backfield due to injuries and other absences throughout the season, but may have inadvertently found a fantastic solution. Ja’Quinden Jackson was moved over from quarterback out of necessity, and could stay put as the team’s feature back moving forward. Jackson is an imposing back at 6-2, 230 lbs., with the explosiveness to rip through a defense. He finished the season on a high note, with 222 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the last two outings. Sophomore Micah Bernard has also become a key contributor later in the season, adding 88 yards and a score on the ground in the PAC 12 Championship and 91 yards and a touchdown in the regular season finale at Colorado.

Utah has one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, regardless of who is carrying the ball from week to week. The Utes average 220.2 yards on the ground per game, which is boosted by Rising’s contributions with his legs as well. This is a testament to the Utes standout offensive line. The group started the season short on experience, but quickly found its footing and excelled throughout the year. They will be the best unit Penn State has faced besides Michigan. However, while Michigan likes to scheme to get defenders out of position and then attack, Utah is much more transparent in their rushing attack. The Utes simply want to line up and out-execute, pushing people out of their spaces. This could be beneficial to a Penn State defense who has excelled playing downhill in the latter part of the season, living in the opponents backfield as they accumulate tackles for loss at a record pace. Regardless, Utah’s offensive line takes pride in pushing defenses off the ball to create holes, and will be a challenging match-up for a Nittany Lion front seven who became a dominant force in the latter stages of the season.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. UTAH DEFENSE

Utah’s defense does not have that one player or two who will visibly take over a game or dominate the stat sheet. What they have is 11 players who stick to their assignment and wrap up and make the stop when needed. They stick to the basics, and it’s quite effective.

The Utes defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, and are particularly adept at stopping the run. The defense is allowing a little over 100 yards per game on the ground, and yielding just 20.3 points per game.

Like Penn State, Utah will be without their top cornerback after Clark Phillips III decided to opt out after declaring for the NFL Draft. Phillips led the team with six interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and was second on the team with six passes defended.

Utah has several players who can help stop drives by making plays in the backfield. Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate has been a valuable addition with 12.5 TFLs, five sacks and a forced fumble. They also received a major boost from Stanford transfer Gabe Reid, who is not far behind with 10 TFLs and leads the team with 5.5 sacks, with two key sacks that helped the Utes race past USC in the PAC 12 Championship Game.

Defensive tackle Simonte Pepa is a special type of player that can cause headaches for the Nittany Lions interior line. Pepa is a 355 lb. load who can also get up the field, and finished with four sacks.

Penn State’s ability to run the ball on the Utes defense is likely the biggest factor to victory for the Nittany Lions. They have worked to establish the run this season with Nicholas Singelton and Kaytron Allen behind an offensive line that has finally found some consistency and the ability to push defenders around at times.

The time has finally come for Sean Clifford’s last ride. The four-year starting quarterback and captain will suit up for the final time in a Nittany Lion uniform, hot off a 13 straight completions in the 35-16 win against the Spartans.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jadon Redding took over placekicking duties for the Utes halfway into the season, and has connected on four-of-six field goals in that time with a long of 45 yards. Punter Jack Bouwmeester is averaging 38.9 yards per punt and does not have a punt of 50 yards or more on the season

Penn State’s decisions to gamble on fourth down in scoring range will be something to keep an eye on. Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar has been streaky during his time at Penn State, and is coming off two missed field goals in the regular season finale. He’s also made several clutch kicks throughout the season, so we’ll see just how much confidence the staff has with him based on some early decision-making.

Punter Barney Amor has been a standout for Penn State throughout the season, and will be playing the final game of his one and only season in State College after transferring from Colgate.

PREDICTION

Penn State-28, Utah-24

Ever since this pairing was announced, I couldn’t help but think how these teams are mirror opposites of each other. Both have relentless defenses that swarm to the ball and make you fight for everything. Both thrive on getting the offense out of sorts and creating turnovers. Both are led by gritty, experienced quarterbacks who will crawl through glass to help their teams win. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, both teams REALLY want to be here. Opt-outs are basically limited to players who would be unable to perform because of injuries. Both were playing their best ball towards the end of the year and both remained more than motivated. For Utah, it’s a chance to claim the Rose Bowl title after letting it slip away against Ohio State a year ago. For Penn State, the victory would be a major step forward after two disappointing seasons where it appeared the program was falling back in the wrong direction.

This game has all the makings of a classic – two hard-nosed teams who will battle on every single down for 60 minutes. There’s one thing that keeps me thinking this game will eventually sway to Penn State – the amount of rising stars who will be ready for the big moment. Players like Abdul Carter, Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen have been on the cusp of greatness. Now is their time to make an announcement to the world. Or look to a player like safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who has the opportunity to end his college career in the Rose Bowl after starting the community college path with no offers. The Nittany Lions have seen a rise in difference-makers this season – something that had been lacking when they needed just that one big play in a key moment in other contests that came up short. There are several brewing in Happy Valley, and now their moment is here to prove it.

Penn State finds just enough balance on offense and some big plays on defense to escape with a victory in another classic in Pasadena.

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