Three takeaways from Utah's loss to Penn State at the Rose Bowl
For a second consecutive season, Utah emerges from the Rose Bowl on the wrong side of the scoreboard. The Utes (10-4) fell to Penn State Monday evening in Pasadena 35-21. The game went into the halftime break tied at 14, but Penn State took control in the second half, rattling off 21 unanswered in the third and early in the fourth.
Explosive plays from the Nittany Lions, miscues from Utah, and just too many absences that finally took their toll all played a part.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Utah’s absences were too much
Utah overcame quite a bit this season. That’s actually an understatement. The No. 1 option in the pass game went down four games into the year. The No. 1 running back was in and out all year and then eventually shut his season down. The No. 2 option in the pass game — who became a damn good No. 1 — battled major injuries over the back half of the season and then did not play in the Rose Bowl. The top corner was unavailable for the Rose Bowl.
And then there was QB1.
At some point, so much becomes too much. That point was reached in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl Monday evening.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising picked up a first down with his legs, absorbed a heavy hit, stayed down, and eventually exited the game. He returned to the sideline later in street clothes and, according to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, had a significant brace on his knee.
It’s a heartbreaking ending for Rising — if it is in fact the end. Rising could return for the 2023 season. He still hasn’t publicly made his intentions clear on that front. He could walk away with back-to-back Pac-12 championships and feel like he accomplished what he set out to.
Or he could look at back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances that ended prematurely because of injury. Rising was knocked out of last year’s game against Ohio State in a similar fashion. If Rising does return, he’ll need to be more protective of his body in 2023. You admire the reckless abandon with which he runs.
But Utah couldn’t afford to lose QB1.
To be clear, Utah did not lose because Rising got injured. Penn State is a very good football team and proved it emphatically throughout a dominant second half. Utah scored just seven points after the halftime break. The pass game, led by Bryson Barnes after Rising exited, was swarmed by a relentless Penn State pass rush.
Penn State sacked Utah five times in the second half. That was the difference. There was no outlet. Twenty-two rushes netted 65 yards. The pass game was hit-or-miss (11-for-25 between the two throwers combined). Utah’s offense was without the pieces that make it what it is.
Rising finished the game 8-for-21 passing for 95 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He added 47 rushing yards. Barnes completed 10 of his 19 passes for 121 yards in relief. He threw a touchdown, but he also tossed an interception.
Penn State played largely mistake-free football. Utah didn’t. And with so many missing pieces, that resulted in the Utes falling down 35-14 early in the fourth.
Defense ends on a low note
Utah’s defense opened the season in a way that irritated coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes weren’t good enough against the run, and they let Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson look a little too much like the next Mike Vick. It was uncharacteristic for a Utah defense to be so out of position so often.
But this was largely an uncharacteristic Utah defense. The optimist points to the youth all throughout the two-deep. Eleven of Utah’s front-seven defenders on the two-deep for the Rose Bowl were listed as sophomores or younger. You have to go through growing pains, particularly at the line of scrimmage.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley felt like they made progress throughout the year. We’ll have to wait and see what this unit looks like in 2023.
Utah’s secondary just had a poor game. Not having Clark Phillips III hurt. Getting a rough outing from safety RJ Hubert — and All-Pac-12 selection — didn’t help.
For the first time in five years, Utah gave up an 80-yard play. And it happened twice. Hubert was in on both.
On a third-and-2 early in the third, Penn State’s standout freshman running back Nicholas Singleton broke through the Utah front and sprinted for an 87-yard touchdown that broke a 14-all tie.
NICHOLAS SINGLETON GOES 87 YARDS!!! pic.twitter.com/nZO2o1Igcn
— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrMatthewCFB) January 3, 2023
In the fourth, on another third down, PSU quarterback Sean Clifford connected with KeAndre Smith-Lambert for an 88-yard touchdown. Smith-Lambert beat Hubert with a stutter-and-go route and then won the footrace to the endzone to give the Nittany Lions a 28-14 lead.
KE’ANDRE LAMBERT-SMITH 88 YARD TOUCHDOWN FROM SEAN CLIFFORD pic.twitter.com/04SVUZAZH5
— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrMatthewCFB) January 3, 2023
Penn State averaged 8.3 yards a play. That’s the highest per-play average the Utes have allowed to an opponent since last year’s Rose Bowl.
Ja’Quinden Jackson flashes again
The former quarterback looks like a very capable running back. Utah will have a pretty competitive room to sort through as it moves into the offseason, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Jackson — given a full offseason to work at the position — rose to the top and emerged as the unquestioned lead back.
He runs with toughness. Against Penn State, Jackson had 81 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
As a team, Utah ran for 225 yards when you account for the sacks the pass game absorbed. Penn State’s ground game was a focal point coming in, and Utah pretty effectively matched the Nittany Lions blow for blow. Penn State had 180 yards rushing at 6.4 a carry (adjusted for sacks). Utah was at 6.1 yards a carry. Micah Bernard added 59 yards on 11 totes.
Bernard could return in 2023. Talented freshman Jaylon Glover should be back.
But it feels like Jackson will get a chance to star.