The wait is finally over. A decade after joining the PAC-12, the Utes have made it to the Grandaddy of ‘Em All. Despite a decidedly rough start to the season, Kyle Whittingham and co cruised through their conference schedule, including two dominating wins over PAC-12 darling, Oregon. Now, the only thing standing between Utah and the Leishman Trophy is an Ohio State program that was one win away from a(nother) College Football Playoff appearance.
Defensively speaking, the Buckeyes aren’t the most physically daunting opponent the Utes have faced this season. Both San Diego State (324.4) and Arizona State (328.7) allowed fewer yards per game than OSU, who have given up an average of 365.4 yards per game while surrendering 33 touchdowns over the course of the season, ranking them 47th nationally. Utah’s stable of running backs will need to contend with a defensive front that allows just 3.52 yards per rush, but Cam Rising should have no problem connecting with his receivers against a susceptible Buckeyes secondary giving up 11.61 yards per completion.
Tavion Thomas, TJ Pledger, and Micah Bernard could benefit from the absence of defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who opted out of the Rose Bowl earlier this week after recording 22 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, cementing himself as one of the best rush defenders for the Buckeyes in 2021. As the team's sack leader with 5.5 take-downs, Rising should also feel significantly less pressure without Garrett’s presence. In his place, junior Taron Vincent (6’2”, 300 lbs) is expected to assume a larger role after recording 17 total tackles and a sack assist this season.
Beyond Garrett, several notable Buckeyes have been absent from practice this week including senior defensive tackle Antwuan Jackson, sophomore linebacker Cody Simon, senior corner Sevyn Banks, and senior safety Marcus Williamson. Though their participation on Saturday is still up in the air, it is very likely some if not all of these athletes will not see the field by kickoff.
As of now, sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman (6’1”, 205 lbs) is the top defender that will almost assuredly see significant playing time come Saturday. With 95 total tackles, a sack, and two interceptions on the season, Hickman is the man to watch defensively.
DraftKings currently has Utah listed as a +4 point underdog*, a line that has inched closer towards Utah’s favor since opening at +7 when the game was initially announced, while ESPN’s Football Power Index is giving the Buckeyes a 67.8% chance of claiming victory, though its hard to imagine Utah not remaining competitive as the Buckeyes continue to deal with a litany of opt-outs and injuries.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.