On a night when Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba set Rose Bowl records, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham offered words of praise for the cornerback the Buckeyes targeted most.
“Micah, he gave us everything he had,” Whittingham said.
Micah Bernard is accustomed to receiving handoffs from Cam Rising and bulldozing his way through opposing defensive lines, trying to gain as many inches as humanly possible in the University of Utah football team’s run game.
But the freshman running back started the Rose Bowl on Saturday playing on defense.
The Utes were missing several cornerbacks due to injuries, and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley admitted this week that he had “experimented” with replacements at that position. Bernard proved to be part of that experiment. He played two-way football in the biggest game of the season — featuring on defense for the first time in his college career.
“We felt he was the best option at corner,” Whittingham said, adding that the plan was to play him sparingly on offense, full-time on defense and not at all on special teams.
On offense, Bernard made some plays. He impressively caught a pass in the corner of the end zone in the first quarter, giving the Utes a 14-0 lead.
Heading into Saturday’s game, Bernard had only caught one other touchdown pass through 12 regular-season games. Bernard tallied 31 rushing yards and 15 receiving yards Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, however, Bernard struggled at times, as did the rest of the secondary. The Buckeyes targeted Bernard in one-on-one coverage.
“I want to take a moment to say thank you to my team, coaches, staff and all the fans for believing in me this was forsure [sic] one of the hardest things ive [sic] been asked to do and although we feel short I love all yall who told to keep fighting thank you,” Bernard wrote on Twitter after the game.
Count Whittingham among those who appreciated what the Utes got from the fill-in corner.
To start the third quarter, Bernard tackled Smith-Njigba, who had eyes for the end zone. Bernard ended up with a face mask full of Rose Bowl grass. Bernard ended the game with 10 tackles, nine of which were solo efforts. That number was the highest among Utah’s defensive unit.
“We appreciate his courage for making that change,” Whittingham said. “He hadn’t played defensive back since high school. To be willing to that for us, proud of him. Very proud of him.”