Penn State vs. Utah: 5 things to know about the Nittany Lions' Rose Bowl opponent
Penn State boasts 10 wins and a top-10 ranking.
But the Nittany Lions do not have a signature victory this season, or even one over a ranked opponent.
Given that, James Franklin’s dynamic young team should be thrilled for the opportunities its date with CFP-No. 8 Utah in the Rose Bowl affords. The Utes (10-3) are legit, having just dumped USC out of the Playoff with a 47-24 victory over the Trojans in the Pac-12 championship game.
If it wants to win, Penn State (10-2) — dropped to No. 11 in the final CFP rankings — can’t treat its first trek to Pasadena since 2016 as a party trip, because Utah will come to play. We’re talking about a rock-solid program that gave Ohio State all it could handle in last year’s Rose Bowl before falling 48-45. And this year’s squad might be better.
Here are 5 things to know about Utah as the countdown begins to the 5 p.m. ET kickoff on Jan. 2 (ESPN).
Utah has played in 4 straight Pac-12 championship games and won the past 2. Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, when it went 3-2, Utah has 3 straight 10-win seasons.
The program has been a model of stability since its days in the Mountain West Conference, and it climbed to the top of the Pac-12 in short order after switching leagues in 2011. The Utes started this season in the top 10 — No. 7 in the AP Poll — and surely will finish there with a win over Penn State. Two of its losses this year were by a field goal margin — 29-26 to Florida in the season-opener and 20-17 to then-No. 12 Oregon. The other loss was a 42-32 setback to then-No. 18 UCLA.
Its 2 best wins were over USC, 43-42 in mid-October and then Saturday, when it outscored the Trojans 44-7 over the game’s final 34 minutes. In the process, the Utes knocked the Trojans out of the CFP and knocked QB Caleb Williams down if not out in the Heisman race.
Beat this team, and Penn State will gain another notch or 2 in this year’s final polls and set itself up to start 2023 as a serious Playoff contender.
Cameron Rising qualifies as the most suddenly celebrated mustachioed gunslinger west of the Rockies since Adam Morrison was leading Gonzaga’s basketball team to the Sweet 16 in 2006.
— Darren M. Haynes (@DarrenMHaynes) April 4, 2021
Is it just me, or is there an uncanny resemblance?
Cam Rising was asked postgame about USC QB Caleb Williams putting a NSFW phrase on his fingernails.
Safe to say Utah’s QB “Don’t Give A Shit”, he thought it was cute. 🎥: PAC 12 pic.twitter.com/HZNG4csZ1A
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 3, 2022
The 6-2, 218-pound Rising will make his 25th and likely final start for Utah in the Rose Bowl, and the Lions will have to track him from sideline to sideline and start to finish. He has 2,939 yards on 66.2% passing this season, with 25 TDs and just 7 INTs. He has another 409 yards and 6 TDs on the ground, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He even has a 9-yard reception.
Rising could return in 2023, but the Ventura, Calif., native apparently has decided 5 years in college is enough. He spent a redshirt year with Texas in 2018, then a year later moved from the Lone Star State to Salt Lake City, where he’s climbed to No. 7 on the Utes’ all-time passing yards list.
A Rose Bowl victory would certainly cap his rise to fame.
Coaching stability out the wazoo
Kyle Whittingham is Utah’s winningest coach, with a record of 154-73 over 18 seasons since taking over when Urban Meyer left for Florida in 2005.
Never an FBS head coach anywhere else, the 63-year-old has led the Utes to at least 9 wins in 7 of the past 8 full seasons. In the height of the MWC days, he produced a 13-0 season in 2008 capped by a 31-17 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. The Utes finished No. 2 that season behind Meyer’s 13-1, Tim Tebow-led Gators.
Whittingham is in his 29th year with Utah, having served as defensive coordinator for 10 years after an inaugural year as defensive line coach in 1994. Among current FBS coaches, only Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (24 seasons) has served longer at one school. A linebacker for BYU from 1978-81, he spurned an offer from his alma mater to take the reins from Meyer instead.
Rising runs a high-powered attack and spreads the ball around when he’s not calling his own number. The Utes average 40 points (7th in nation) and 472.7 yards (17th) per game. They hung 73 on Southern Utah and 63 on Colorado, and have topped 40 points in 7 of their 13 games.
Though they don’t have a dominant back, 5 players have rushed for 360+ yards this season while combining for 29 rushing TDs. Even with leading ground gainer Tavion Thomas out for good following a toe injury, the Utes gained 223 yards in their latest victory over USC. Freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson led the way with 105 yards and 2 TDs, and sophomore Micah Bernard added another 88 yards and a score.
In the pass game, tight end Dalton Kincaid stands out with 70 catches for 890 yards and 8 TDs, all team highs. In the Utes’ first win over USC, the 6-4, 242-pound senior went off for 243 yards on 16 catches. Kincaid has stepped up in the absence of another prolific tight end, Brant Kuithe, a senior with almost 1,900 career yards who suffered a season-ending injury in late September.
Rising has other targets, led by sophomore WR Devaughn Vele with 50 receptions for 595 yards and 5 TDs. Four others have at least 280 receiving yards, including Bernard out of the backfield with 31 catches for 306 yards.
Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will need the 4 available weeks to plan counters to Utah’s varied attack.
Relatively good defense
When Penn State has the ball, it’ll be going against the Pac-12 leader in points allowed (20.4 per game), total defense (325.3 yards per game) and sacks (38). LB/DE Gabe Reid leads the team with 5.5 sacks, and 4 others have at least 4.
The rush defense ranks 1st in the Pac-12 and 16th in the country, allowing 107 yards per game. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen likely will need to beat that number for Penn State to prevail. Either that, or Sean Clifford will need to have a strong final game in his quest for a program-record 32nd win as Penn State’s starting quarterback.