Pasadena, Calif. • The Rose Bowl became a matter of survival for the University of Utah.
Surviving an offensive onslaught from Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. Surviving a decimated secondary, which saw third-year freshman running back Micah Bernard start at cornerback. Surviving shoddy special teams play, which included having a punt blocked fir the third time this season. Surviving Cam Rising leaving with an apparent head injury in the fourth quarter.
Heroics from, of all people, walk-on quarterback Bryson Barnes, nearly ensured survival, but Ohio State had the last laugh.
After Barnes engineered a touchdown drive to tie the game, a 19-yard field goal by Noah Ruggles with nine seconds remaining gave the Buckeyes a wild 48-45 win in front of 87,842.
Ohio State (11-2), appearing in the Rose Bowl for the 16th time, racked up 682 total yards. Stroud, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, finished 37-for-46 for 573 yards and six touchdown passes. Stroud’s favorite target on Saturday, sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, caught 15 passes for a Rose Bowl-record 347 yards and three touchdowns.
“That quarterback is terrific, statistically the best in the country, and he proved it tonight,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I’m proud of our guys, they have absolutely nothing to hang their head about. They fought the entire 60 minutes and came up short, but they still made Utah football history this year, Pac-12 champions, which has never been done.
“All the credit to Ohio State. We just didn’t have quite enough in the tank to get the job done.”
The Buckeyes trailed most of the way, but leaned on the Utes for much of the second half before finally taking a lead. Stroud’s 30-yard touchdown to Smith-Njigba with 4:22 left gave Ohio State its first lead at 45-38.
One series earlier, Rising exited after appearing to smash his head on the ground as he was sacked by redshirt freshman safety Kourt Williams. Rising stayed on the ground for a couple of minutes before walking off on his own. Whittingham said postgame that Rising was doing better, and he was seen walking out of the locker room on his own.
Ja’Quinden Jackson was available, but Barnes, a second-year walk-on sophomore, acted as Rising’s backup
Utah started run-heavy with Barnes at quarterback, but at some point, he had to make a play.
With the Utes trailing, his throw to Britain Covey along the left sideline went for 8 yards on second-and-9 down to the Ohio State 40-yard line. The Milford native then ran for 10 yards on a scramble and two plays later, he lofted a perfect back to the back of the end zone for 15 yards to Dalton Kincaid to bring Utah to within one with 1:54 remaining.
Whittingham admitted to considering the two-point conversion, but ultimately opted against it in favor of a Jadon Redding extra point to tie the game.
“Couldn’t be more proud of what Bryson Barnes did, he came into a tough situation and let the team right down the field for a touchdown,” Whittingham said. “Had an inclination to go for two right then, but too much time left on the clock. Had it been under a minute, would have gone for two. That was the mindset.”
Utah staked out a 14-0 first-quarter lead behind Rising, who at one point completed eight consecutive first-half passes. After going three-and-out twice to start the game, Ohio State then settled in, cutting the deficit in half thanks to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Stroud to Harrison Jr.
Then, things got nuts.
Five touchdowns were scored over a span of just 2:43.
A Tavion Thomas 6-yard run through a gaping hole, his 21st touchdown of the season, opened the lunacy.
With Utah’s cornerbacks room decimated by injury and Stroud intent on picking on Bernard in his first-ever collegiate game reps there, Stroud hit Smith-Njigba for a 50-yard score.
A 97-yard kickoff return by Covey then shook the press box.
“I had an inkling that we might have a few opportunities just based on sea level, how far he kicks it,” said Covey, who finished with 252 all-purpose yards in his final collegiate game. “After that kickoff return, they started kicking it short, trying to kick it to our up-fullback, they kicked it out of bounds.”
Stroud hit Smith-Njigba on the very next play for a touchdown, this one going 52 yards as he sprinted after the catch and beat Bernard to the pylon.
At that point, Utah, buoyed by those two early scores, led, 28-21, but tacked on one more on before halftime.
On fourth-and-1 from his own 38-yard line, Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig got aggressive as Ohio State was getting anything it wanted. He called a Rising keeper for the fourth time in the first half as his quarterback broke one tackle, then outran everyone for a 68-yard touchdown, sending Utah to the locker room up, 35-21.