It’s officially game week! To kick off BlockU’s Rose Bowl coverage, Land-Grant Holy Land’s managing editor, Matt Tamanini sat down with us to give us the inside scoop on Ohio State’s perspective of this week’s matchup.
Ohio State was a playoff favorite until the upset to Michigan officially knocked them out of contention. Twitter banter seems to suggest there may be some discontent coming from Buckeye nation considering how close the team was to a third straight playoff bid, but Twitter isn’t always the best measure of a typical fan. Does the average Buckeye fan see this game as a consolation prize or is there still a level of excitement coming out of Columbus for this matchup?
Matt: I would say that the excitement for this game is pretty minimal, especially amongst the younger generations. The older the fan is, the more likely they are to have fond memories of a Rose Bowl berth being the epitome of a successful season for a Big Ten team. But for fans coming from the BCS and College Football Playoff generations, anything short of those goals is going to be a disappointment. I am sure that in the days leading up to the game that fans will get more excited about the matchup, but it certainly won’t have the hysteria of a playoff game.
Ohio State fans are generally pretty spoiled and impossible to satisfy, no matter the outcome. So this really isn’t a surprise on that front, but the way that the sport and the college football media prioritizes the CFP feeds into that as well. To me, these games still have tremendous value, even if they are little more than exhibition games in the grand scheme of the season. The setting will be beautiful, the matchup will be exciting, and I imagine it will be one of the best games of the entire bowl season.
Former Ohio State great, Joey Galloway, has suggested two of OSU’s top receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson could sit the Rose Bowl out, a trend that has become more popular among top NFL prospects who aren’t participating in the playoffs. If they do indeed forego the bowl game, who will Stroud turn to, particularly in the red zone where that duo has really shined?
Matt: If I had to guess, I would assume that Olave plays, but Wilson doesn’t. I would not fault either for skipping the game, but just Olave’s general personality leads me to think that he will be there. That being said, whether or not either suits up, Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be a heavily targeted weapon for Stroud. JSN was named to multiple All-America lists this season and assuming both Wilson and Olave head to the NFL, he will be the No. 1 WR in 2022.
However, if neither of the two NFL-eligible WRs play in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State’s wide receiver room is the deepest on the team, and they will have no shortage of highly touted, incredibly talented WRs to turn to. Earlier in the season when Olave was out injured, 2020’s No. 1 national receiver recruit Julian Fleming stepped in as the spot-starter, so I would imagine that he would be in the mix. Then, we have seen a lot of potential explosiveness from the 2021 No. 1 national receiver recruit Emeka Egbuka who has handled kick returns for a good portion of the season; he will almost certainly be targeted a lot as well. Then you have two top-100 players from the 2021 recruiting class in Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jayden Ballard who could see some increased playing time if Olave and Wilson are unavailable.
However, the one nice thing about Ohio State’s offense is that they do have playmakers at multiple positions. True freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson is one of the most electric runners I’ve seen at Ohio State in a long time. He is absolutely in the same category as Ezekiel Elliott and Maurice Clarett. The issue is that this season, his offensive line has not always done a great job at opening holes for him and keeping defensive lines at bay. However, if Henderson has even the tiniest bit of wiggle room, he can absolutely make a play in the red zone, either by outrunning a defender to the corner or by running them over.
While the Buckeyes offense leads the nation, the defense ranks 50th nationally despite a respectable rush defense that allowed just 3.52 yards per attempt and a secondary that has given up just 18 passing TDs all season. What part of the OSU defense can Utah attempt to exploit if they hope to score against the Buckeyes?
Matt: Can I just say “everything”? Nothing on Ohio State’s defense really worked all that well this season. Despite having a significant number of highly touted recruits on the defensive line, they had a tendency to be out-manned and pushed around by aggressive offensive lines. The OSU linebackers have been pretty underwhelming for three or four years now, and when the best LB on the team (by a considerable margin) was a running back just five months ago, that tells you a lot. The secondary is in a weird spot because they had a rough couple of years recruiting the position when their defensive coaching staff was in flux, so they have an odd mix of inexperienced, but talented youngsters, and some underperforming veterans. It also didn’t help that they lost their starting free safety in the season opener and have had injuries to multiple starting corners all season.
While the newly hired defensive coordinator, Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles, hasn’t started in Columbus yet, I would hope that the team leans on the younger players and adopts Knowles’ aggressive philosophy for this game. That, to me, has been their best bet for defensive success all season, but the coaches haven’t taken my completely unsolicited, wholly uninformed advice just yet.
Conversely, what have you seen out of Utah that Ohio State is able to exploit?
Matt: The only weakness that I have seen in Utah this season is that they are far more reliant on their running attack than their passing game. If Ohio State does decide to lean on its younger defensive linemen and linebackers and has their young, tougher safeties support the run, this could be the best option for them in terms of making plays on defense.
OSU has two true freshman defensive ends who were ranked in the top five nationally in the 2021 recruiting class (J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer). They both have played throughout the season, but they have only been rotational players. With the veterans either already declaring their intentions to head to the NFL or still contemplating it, this would be an excellent time to allow the young guys to prove what they are capable of with increased playing time.
The same goes for the interior where another true freshman Tyleik Williams has been extraordinary in his limited number of snaps. With an extra month of bowl practices under his belt, I would love to see him step into a more pronounced role in the rotation for this game, especially if one or more of the upperclassmen tackles opt-out.
At the second level, former running back Steele Chambers has become the best linebacker on the team and should not leave the field unless he is hurt or literally can’t breathe. After that, it’s a crapshoot as to who else should be there. Ohio State has seen a number of LBs transfer this season, and while none of them played all that much to begin with, it certainly hurts the positional depth there. Cody Simon has shown signs of promise this year, but was banged up and looked pretty darn bad in the final quarter of the season. However, if he is healthy, the combo of him and Chambers (with hybrid safety/linebacker Ronnie Hickman) could have an impact against the Utes’ run-first offense.
However, if Ohio State just rolls into Southern California with the same rotation and game plan that they have all season, the Utes will more than likely be able to run at will against them.
How do Buckeye fans perceive Utah’s football program and the PAC-12 as a whole?
Matt: I certainly can’t speak for all Buckeye fans, but I respect the hell out of Utah’s program, and if I had to root for a PAC-12 team, it would be the Utes, and I promise I’m not just saying that because you’re the ones asking the question.
What Kyle Whittingham has been able to do to take the team from the Mountain West into the PAC-12 a decade ago and to turn them into not only a contender in the conference, but one that is routinely on the doorstep of the CFP is incredibly impressive. I admire the team’s physicality and attention to detail and fundamentals on both sides of the ball.
And while I know that Whittingham is likely a lifer at Utah at this point, his commitment to staying with the program for approaching three decades is incredibly admirable; especially since I am sure that “bigger” programs have almost certainly been ready to throw huge amounts of money at him to leave Salt Lake.
I think that Utah is well-positioned to be one of most consistent programs in the PAC-12 (if not the most consistent) for the foreseeable future, no matter what’s happening at USC right now.
Are there any unique tailgating traditions Buckeye fans will be taking to Pasadena?
Matt: Ohio State fans love their marching band, they are revered like literally nothing else in the Buckeye sphere of influence. As evidenced by this season, OSU fans have no problem turning on the team, players, and coaches whenever things don’t go exactly according to unreasonably perfect expectations, but I can’t imagine that anything will ever sour the fondness that they have for the marching band. You will see that at the parade, tailgates, pregame, at halftime, and anywhere else the band shows up during the Rose Bowl festivities.
What’s your prediction for the final score?
Matt: Honestly, this one scares me. I think that Utah is built like the exact type of team that would give this Ohio State squad lots of problems. They get tons of pressure on the quarterback (something that Stroud doesn’t yet handle incredibly well), their defensive line blows up plays as well as anyone in the country, they are strong against both the run and the pass, they are physical in the running game; this could get very ugly.
However, I will say that after OSU lost to their rivals in the regular season finale and there was chatter across the board about the Buckeyes being soft, I would imagine that that has been an emphasis throughout bowl practices. So, I am hoping that both sides of the ball for Ohio State will come out with a ferocity that we haven’t seen much of this season, especially across the lines. If they can do that, I think Ohio State will be able to pull out a win. If they can’t, I’m afraid they will be looking at their first three-loss season since the lost Luke Fickell/interim coach season of 2011.
So, since I am an OSU fan and alum first, I am going to assume (with literally no evidence to support it) that the Buckeyes show up in Pasadena with a chip on their shoulder and find a way to win. So, I will go Ohio State 38, Utah 31. However, I do reserve the right to amend this up until game time, depending on injuries, COVID, and opt-outs!