Rose Bowl 2023: Manny Diaz, Penn State defense ready for physical Utah

LOS ANGELES — Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and the Nittany Lions say they are up for the challenge that Utah quarterback Cam Rising and the Utes will present in the Rose Bowl on Monday.

Utah’s offense ranks 16th in the nation in yards per game (472.7) and seventh in points per game (40) but what stands out to Diaz doesn’t shown up in the box scores.

“They do a great job of just questioning your toughness down for down with the way they pound the football,” Diaz said.

Penn State (10-2) hasn’t played since defeating Michigan State on Nov. 26. Diaz has made his team aware of the difficulty that comes with a long layoff and how it could become a hindrance for teams playing this late into the bowl season schedule.

“The one thing you always worry about in bowl games, you haven’t played in a month,” Diaz said. “We kind of got to restart, re-establish your toughness. … we have to run to the football, we have to tackle, all the things that every defensive coordinator is going to say, but when you haven’t played in a month, I think it takes on an even bigger emphasis.”

Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown and Diaz believe that Pac-12 champion Utah (10-3) has a similar style of play to the teams they’ve seen during Big Ten Conference play because of the Utes’ level of physicality.

“They’re a powerhouse team,” Brown said. “They want to run the ball. They want to be the most physical team on the field. I feel like they do that very well from watching film and watching the teams that they’ve played. They’ve been able to out-physical their opponents.”

The Nittany Lions’ level of confidence is high but their depth will be tested with the absence of standout cornerback Joey Porter Jr., who opted out of the game and declared for the NFL Draft.

Porter had 27 total tackles, a fumble recovery and 11 pass breakups this season and set a program record with six pass breakups in the season opener against Purdue.

Johnny Dixon, who is expected to step in for Porter, has continued to grow into his own in his second year at Penn State.

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“I’m really proud of the strides that Johnny has made,” Diaz said of Dixon’s increased confidence. “That’s been a big part of the reason why we’ve been able to play pass defense, even when we had Joey, I don’t know if we could have done what we’ve been able to do without Johnny’s development.”

Dixon has 20 total tackles (4½ for a loss), two interceptions and a forced fumble this year.

Cornerback Kalen King is roommates with Dixon on the trip and said Dixon is “very excited” and “we’re definitely going to maximize our opportunities.“

King has been productive in the Penn State secondary with 27 total tackles (three for a loss), two interceptions and 18 pass breakups. He is ranked among the top five in the country for pass breakups.

“It’s not going to be a drop-off when me and Johnny are starting on Monday,” King said. “I feel like it’s been like that all year. I feel like we played up to par and we’re ready for this game.”

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