Against Michigan, Ohio State’s defensive front was gashed early, it was gashed often, and it was gashed in a way it hadn’t been since early in the 2021 campaign. Minnesota ran right at Ohio State in the season-opener—203 yards on 50 attempts—and then Oregon ran right over Ohio State in a shocking Ducks win in Columbus—38 carries for 269 yards. The Wolverines punched Ohio State in the mouth on Nov. 27, to the tune of 297 rush yards on 41 attempts in a 42-27 win over their hated rival.

Michigan, before and after the game, said it felt it could out-muscle the Buckeyes. It did.

When Ohio State meets Utah in the Rose Bowl on Saturday, it’ll face another Wolverine-like mindset. Because maybe only Michigan and Oregon match what the 11th-ranked Utes want to do when they have the ball. They would portend good things for Utah, considering those two teams were the only ones to beat this Buckeye squad all year.

“Really, just stacking the box and going right at you,” said Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers of the Utah rushing attack. “A lot of similarities (to Michigan) as far as, like, the run game. They just come at you downhill.”

Only Coastal Carolina has been more effective with the ground game this season; Utah’s 5.6 yards per carry ranks second among all FBS teams. And it’s that ground game that has powered one of college football’s most efficient overall offenses this season (17th in success rate). Though the Utes are fairly balanced with their offensive attack, they do well to stay on schedule thanks to a three-headed running back monster.

Tavion Thomas ran for 1,041 yards this year (5.6 per carry) and a Pac-12-leading 20 touchdowns. TJ Pledger ran for 671 yards—6.9 per carry, the best among qualified league rushers—and six scores. Micah Bernard had 498 yards at 5.9 a pop. The Utes’ ground game is deadly. The entire operation is a well-oiled machine.

And it’ll be looking to churn against an Ohio State defensive front that not only has had trouble when healthy this year, but will be somewhat shorthanded in the game.

Defensive tackle and leading sack-getter Haskell Garrett will sit out the game. Four other Ohio State players who started at least six games on defense this season–defensive tackle Antwuan Jackson, linebacker Cody Simon, cornerback Sevyn Banks, and safety Marcus Williamson–were all absent from Buckeye practice on both Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Eleven Warriors, which would certainly call into question their availability for Saturday’s game.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters on Friday the Buckeyes had only experienced isolated cases of COVID issues and he expected to be fully ready for the game, so it’s not immediately clear what those problems would be, but if Ohio State is missing pieces on defense, it’ll be a problem.

The Utes use two and three-tight end sets in a way that’ll put Ohio State into a pinch. With Cam Rising giving stability to the quarterback position, Ohio State is going to have to decide if it wants to play linebackers or safeties on those tight ends. Make yourself smaller and Utah will pummel you at the point of attack with a burly group of offensive linemen.

Utah’s defense will feature the game’s best player in linebacker Devin Lloyd.

CJ Stroud, Ohio State’s phenom redshirt freshman phenom, should be able to make plays when needed because he’s done it all year.

Ohio State will want to keep him out of obvious passing downs. Whoever can have better success on first down will probably be in a good position.

The Ohio State offense vs. the Utah defense should live up to the billing that matchup has received. The Utah offense vs. the Ohio State defense could be just as entertaining a battle given the context. But the biggest piece of this game might be motivation.

“We came here for a reason,” said linebacker Nephi Sewell this week. “Before the season even started, we already set out our goals to win the Pac-12 and win the Rose Bowl. So, here we are with the opportunity.”

No opt-outs for the Utes.

“I really couldn’t have not seen myself playing in this game,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd, a player many expect to be a top-15 or so selection in the 2022 NFL draft. “I want to compete with my boys for the last time, and I want another ring, and I want to go out the right way.”

Head coach Kyle Whittingham said on Friday this has been a moment long in the making for the Utah program.

“We’ve been working a long time to get here,” he told reporters.

There’s something to be said about Ohio State having its national championship hopes dashed the last time it was on the field, then seeing some of its top draftable players opt to sit out “The Granddaddy of Them All,” all the while Utah seems wholly invested in using the Rose Bowl to make a statement about the program.

Maybe that means something once the emotion and adrenaline of the first quarter starts to wane. Maybe it ends up meaning nothing. A crowd that’s expected to be Utah-dominant will surely help. But Ohio State has enough talent to survive an early onslaught and keep itself within striking distance.

One of the biggest games in program history and it’s for the right to call themselves Rose Bowl champions. Saturday should be fun. And Utah seems more than ready.