Rose Bowl: Utah football cornerbacks vs. Ohio State wide receivers will be prime matchup

Utes cornerbacks corps. is thin, while Buckeyes wide receivers have been prolific, but all may not play

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (8) makes an interception late in the fourth quarter as the University of Utah hosts Washington State, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

There is one matchup, in particular, that could decide the outcome of this year’s Rose Bowl between the University of Utah and Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have one of college football’s most prolific passing attacks.

And that has the full attention of Utah’s young secondary.

“When we found out we were going to be facing Ohio State, everybody in the room got excited,” Utes cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said Wednesday after practice. “To play good receivers is what we do all year long.”

Ohio State’s second-year freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba has 1,259 receiving yards, Garrett Wilson has 1,058, and Chris Olave is 64 yards shy of joining them in the 1,000-yard club. The guy slinging the ball to them this season, quarterback C.J. Stroud, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy vote.

The Utes’ young secondary, helped Utah finish third in the Pac-12 and 24th nationally in passing yards allowed at just 195.3 per game.

That said, these Buckeye receivers and this Buckeye quarterback is a different situation vs. anything Utah has dealt with this season.

USC star and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year “Drake London was a pretty good receiver, we play good receivers, we just don’t play three of them at the same time,” Shah said. “This presents a unique challenge for us, but no one backs away, we just got more excited.”

And Shah’s group’s depth has never been thinner. Clark Phillips III mans one outside cornerback spot, Malone Mataele is primarily the nickel, and there is a huge question mark at that other outside spot. JT Broughton was lost for the season on Sept. 11 at BYU. Faybian Marks, who had played well in place of Broughton, suffered a season-ending injury at Arizona on Nov. 13. His replacement, Zemaiah Vaughn, left the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3 with an injury and had season-ending surgery.

Potentially more so than any other matchup, this one may decide arguably the biggest game in Utah football history: Ohio State’s stud receivers versus Utah’s thin secondary.

The matchup, however, is not exactly cut and dry.

Without getting into specific positional needs, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham indicated earlier this month that a player or two switching to the secondary was an option in order to provide some depth, but no decisions had yet been made.

On Wednesday, Shah seemed to walk that back.

“In terms of changing positions, I only have the folks in my room, that have been in my room,” Shah said. “We haven’t asked anybody right now, at this point, to change positions. We’ve asked folks to do more, but we haven’t asked anybody to change positions. We’ve been pushing our kids that are here to know a little bit more. My nickel has to play outside corner, the safety has to be able to play the nickel. That’s the big thing right now.”

Regardless of what Shah said, someone is going to have to play that second cornerback spot, and none of the options currently in his room have extensive game experience at the position. Not Caine Savage (eight games in 2021 on special teams), not LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson (six games in 2021, primarily on special teams), none of the other cornerbacks listed on the roster with freshman eligibility.

Objectively, the lack of experienced options lends credence to the notion that a player from outside the cornerbacks room may still find himself switching positions, maybe even starting in the Rose Bowl if Whittingham, Shah, and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley make that call.

On the Ohio State side, as a second-year player, Smith-Njigba is not NFL draft-eligible and is expected to play. Wilson and Olave, though, are draft eligible, so their willingness to play in anything other than the College Football Playoff has been brought into question in recent weeks.

It is not the norm in college football, but a growing trend in recent years has seen draft-eligible players skipping bowl games in order to begin preparing for the NFL Combine and their respective pro days. The highest-profile example thus far in this cycle is the two-biggest stars in the Peach Bowl, Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett from Pitt and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, opting out earlier this month.

For what it’s worth, ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper currently has Wilson projected as the No. 16 overall pick and Olave at No. 22.