Gold: Bowl season ends with a thud for Pac-12 with Utah's Rose Bowl loss
All eyes were on Utah on Monday afternoon, finally, given all the attention it so richly deserves.
The Utes probably would’ve been fine if you wore a blindfold, though, after losing to Penn State in pitiful fashion in the Granddaddy Of Them All, the 109th Rose Bowl.
The 108th version of the game didn’t treat the Utes much better, but at least they were in that one.
This time around, there would be no 3-point shootout, no 48-45 narrow loss that made Utah twist and turn all season long. On Monday, the Utes were flat-out flattened by the Nittany Lions in a 35-21 loss, the Pac-12’s premier program put in its place by the Big Ten’s 3rd-best team. This was a tough loss for Utah, but it was an embarrassment for the Pac-12.
One of many this bowl season.
The moment Oregon somehow snuck by North Carolina, 28-27, on a PAT that somehow hit the uprights but went in, belief crept in. Could this be the year the league reversed its bowl curse?
Last year, the league went 0-5 in bowl games, easily the worst of any conference in college football. The year before, during the chaotic COVID-19 season, the league only played in two bowl games, losing both, and the league went a combined 7-7 the previous two years.
Of course, nothing was quite as bad as the infamous 1-8 2017 bowl season, when the league became the laughingstock of college football.
This year, watching the Ducks squeak by Drake Maye and the Tar Heels after Beaver State rival Oregon State put a thorough beatdown on the Florida Gators, you started to see some of the toughness that defined the Pac-12 this season. When Washington looked like the much better team against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, you got a sense that the league had matured, or at least caught up to its biggest rivals.
Then UCLA lost the Sun Bowl to Pitt, 37-35, on a heartbreaking last-minute field goal, after allowing the Panthers to barely break a sweat on the game-winning drive.
Then USC lost the Cotton Bowl to Tulane, 46-45, on a heartbreaking last-minute touchdown pass, after surrendering a 15-point lead with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game.
Then the Rose Bowl started and so did started the fireworks. At least for the Nittany Lions
Penn State has an illustrious football history, with more than 900 wins, five national titles and a half-dozen Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Yet before Monday, the Nittany Lions had never hit two home runs longer than they did in the Rose Bowl.
Early in the game, the script played out as expected, with two similarly styled and two evenly matched team playing to a 1st quarter draw. Penn State scored on drives of 11 plays for 82 yards and 6 for 70, while Utah scored on drives of 13 plays for 75 yards and 6 plays for 75 yards.
Then, with 9:25 left in the 3rd quarter, Penn State brought out the big bat on an 87-yard touchdown run by Nicholas Singleton.
“We got cut out of a gap on the big run,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It was a defense where we committed essentially everybody but the corners who were in coverage to the box, and one of our up-front guys got cut out by their tight end. Tight end did a great job, if you watch the replay, our defensive guy is looking over to the sideline to see if we’re going to be changing the call. They snapped the ball when his head was to the sideline, which didn’t allow him to get a very good opportunity to play the block scheme, so that was the issue there.”
If you’re watching the Rose Bowl today and be sure to watch for Penn State RB Nicholas Singleton. One of the most talented backs in the country. pic.twitter.com/PEGN9JQg56
— Kevin (@Daboys_22) January 2, 2023
To that point, the game was tied and the Utes were more than keeping up with the Nittany Lions. Cam Rising wasn’t exactly dealing for the Utes, but he was hanging tough.
But on the subsequent drive, Rising went down with a knee injury that ultimately knocked him out of the Rose Bowl for the second straight year. Last year, head injury. This year, knee. Both years, heartbreak.
“Breaks my heart,” said Whittingham, who also added that Rising’s injury looks serious and could lead to an extended recovery period. “He’s such a warrior and such a fierce competitor. He’ll be back; I can promise you that, from the injury. Hopefully he’s back with us. That’s to be determined. But he’ll work his way back. It almost seemed we lost a little bit of our mojo when that happened. We had a little bit of a deflation on our team, and that’s not the right way to respond. We needed to respond better than we did, and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t — that we had the dropoff that we did.”
With Rising out, Bryson Barnes came in and looked fine enough for a few plays before throwing a rushed interception and after the Utes punted on their next drive, Sean Clifford connected with KeAndre Lambert-Smith for an 88-yard touchdown.
Sean Clifford. KeAndre Lambert-Smith. 88 yards on the first snap of the fourth quarter. What a thing of beauty. pic.twitter.com/WThkZoZgXl
— Dean Straka (@DWStraka49) January 3, 2023
“(Our) defense got big played,” Whittingham said. “That’s evidenced by over 400 yards of offense by Penn State. Only 15 first downs, that’s not a lot of first downs which means they’re getting some big-chunk-yardage plays, which definitely led to our demise. … The long pass was a double move. It was cover-two structure, and safety just got a little bit too aggressive on the first slant move and went right by us and was — 60, 70-yard play. The run was 80, 85 yards. Those two plays there were very damaging.”
Going back to spring ball, Utah talked about the pain of the last Rose Bowl. At Pac-12 Media Day, the Utes could barely address the topic without getting fired up. After the conference title game, Whittingham made it clear how much they wanted this one.
After this game, Whittingham tried to focus on some positives, though the disappointment was clear.
“A lot of positives this season,” he said. “Back-to-back Pac-12 championships, 10-win seasons. Only been done, I believe, six or seven times in the program’s history, and second appearance in the Rose Bowl. As disappointed as we are and as bitter as this is, still a lot to build on, and definitely the season overall was a step in the right direction for our program. We’ve got to continue that.”
The Utes will bounce back, that is of little doubt.
Will the Pac-12 after a 3-4 bowl season and a brutal finish, with three straight losses?
That’s a little more questionable.