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Rose Bowl 2023: Utah, Penn State expect a physical game

LOS ANGELES — Coach Kyle Whittingham has “grown up in the shadow of the Rose Bowl” and understands what the significance of a win on the big stage will do to help cement Utah’s status as a legitimate contender going forward in college football.

The Utes made two trips to Pasadena in 2022, including a loss in their Rose Bowl Game debut against Ohio State last January and a Pac-12 Conference loss to UCLA in October.

“It wasn’t easy and we had our fair share of setbacks, but the guys continued to hang in there, handled adversity and never flinched or backed down,” Whittingham said. “They just kept swinging, and when the dust settled, we had a chance to play for the Pac-12 championship and now the Rose Bowl.”

The Utes also suffered losses to Florida and Oregon, but finished the season with a second win against Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the USC Trojans.

“Every time our backs were against the wall, we responded,” Whittingham said.

Like the Utes, Penn State figured the possibility to play in the Rose Bowl Game would be unlikely after losing to Michigan and Ohio State in Big Ten play.

But with Ohio State and Michigan ranked among the College Football Playoff’s top four teams, it created a path to Pasadena for Penn State as the Big Ten representative.

“To be here right now is just surreal,” Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown said when talking to reporters. “I can’t even explain how far I came, and to be sitting where I’m sitting right now is an amazing feeling, and I’m truly blessed and honored to be here.”

Members of both teams have also expressed that while they’re happy to be participating in the game, they still have aspirations of winning “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

“We’re one of the most physical teams around,” Brown said. “I think this is going to be a game of who is tougher. That’s going to determine the game.”

When Penn State has the ball

The Nittany Lions will rely on their true freshmen duo of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. The running backs ran for 1,771 yards this season.

Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurchich believes “playing fast” and with “no hesitation” while getting players at all skilled positions involved could be the keys for success against Utah’s defense.

“Trying to make sure that we have a good balance with that and trying to find the mismatches and trying to create space, playing with some tempo at the same time,” Yurchich said. “All those sorts of things help in starting fast and making sure that we’re doing a great job of getting on top early.”

Utah will be without key defensive back and former La Habra High star Clark Phillips III, whose absence may present an opportunity for a Penn State offense led by quarterback Sean Clifford.

“You’ve got to make sure that if there is anywhere on the field that you feel you have an advantage, you’d better make sure that you target that,” Yurchich said. “A lot of our offense is based on pure progressions, and so if one guy is double covered we go to the guy that’s one-on-one. … But there’s going to be certain plays where you’re going to get certain guys scot-free, but against this type of defense and as much man as they play, you’re going to get one-on-one coverage, and our guys are going to have to rise to the challenge and win those one-on-one matchups.”

Zemaiah Vaughn is expected to play in place of Phillips. Vaughn has started six games this season.

When Utah has the ball:

Quarterback Cam Rising went 17 of 22 for 214 yards and two touchdowns in the 2022 Rose Bowl Game against Ohio State, but an injury took him out of the game early. Rising and the Utes return this season with an opportunity to win the program’s first Rose Bowl Game.

The junior quarterback out of Newbury Park High completed 241 of 364 passes for 2,939 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing seven interceptions this season.

Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz leads a physical defense but understands that Rising is a tough quarterback and who inspires the offense.

“When he can demonstrate he’s tough, everybody’s level of toughness picks up,” Diaz said about Rising. “They want to believe they can win … what you can see is that Utah has belief. They believe in their leader.”

Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig named linebacker Abdul Carter as a “dynamic playmaker” who stands out among the Penn State defense, but believes the unit as a whole has proven to be disruptive this season.

“It’s a very well-coached team,” Ludwig said. “They’re very disruptive as a unit. That definitely has our attention.”

Whittingham and Ludwig made the necessary adjustments with the offensive line early in the season with the belief they’ll be up to the task of preventing any disruption.

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“We’re just trying to get our best five on the field,” Ludwig said. “Michael Mokofisi was really making a move as an interior player and to make room for Michael (and move Sataoa Laumea to right tackle). It was a natural fit and it has worked out great.”

The Utes will be missing some key playmakers on offense, including tight end Dalton Kincaid (due to injury) and running back Tavion Thomas (opt-out).

Cerritos Gahr alum Micah Bernard will take on the primary role out of the backfield. Thomas Yassmin will take on a larger role at tight end.

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