Rose Bowl: Utah football’s finality comes in close loss as questions about the future rise

Utes finish 10-4 as first-time Pac-12 champion and first-time Rose Bowl participant.

Pasadena, Calif. • By the time Kyle Whittingham, Devin Lloyd and Britain Covey entered their postgame press conference Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, it was clear Covey had already done some crying.

The first question to the two players following a 48-45 loss to Ohio State focused on the emotions of the aftermath of playing their final collegiate games. Covey conceded it was a lot to take in, that he didn’t want to take his pads off, and while expressing his love for the school, he broke down in tears again.

This is what finality looked like as a landmark, albeit difficult season came to a close. Finality can feel raw, it can feel sudden, and it can feel unfair. Giving up 683 yards of total offense, 573 of them through the air to C.J. Stroud, was not the storybook ending Covey or anyone else envisioned on Saturday night.

In the coming days and weeks, as Covey moves past this game, as he prepares for the NFL draft, as he has an opportunity to step back and consider what the 2021 season was, the bigger picture will come into focus.

Nobody can take away what these Utes were, especially considering what they went through this fall to get to Pasadena. This group is undoubtedly among the best this football program has ever seen. It rallied after a 1-2 start, it rallied in the face of a second teammate death in nine months, it won the Pac-12 South, it won the Pac-12 for the first time, it got to a Rose Bowl.

Beyond the tears, this Utah football team will be remembered forever.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni (77) takes a moment on the field after the loss, as the Utah Utes face the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Micah Bernard plays both ways

The big topic of conversation in terms of personnel over the last two weeks was what Utah was going to do at the second cornerback spot with the position decimated by injury.

Beginning in mid-December, there was heavy speculation that third-year freshman running back Micah Bernard would not only play cornerback, but potentially start in the Rose Bowl. Cornerbacks coach Sharieff Shah said on Dec. 22 that no one has been asked to change positions.

On Tuesday at practice in Carson, Bernard stepped off a defensive bus with a black jersey on. He was then seen playing cornerback with the first-team defense vs. the scout team offense. Under the Utah athletic department’s media guidelines, all of that went unreported despite being witnessed. On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said they had “experimented” with different players at the position.

Bernard started at cornerback in the Rose Bowl, against Stroud and a high-powered passing attack. Ohio State ran 67 plays, Bernard was in there for the vast majority of them. He is a superior athlete, he is a smart football player, but it didn’t go well much of the time.

Two things stood out. One, he had to deal with future NFL wide receiver Jaxson Smith-Njigba, who went nuts for 15 catches, 347 yards and three touchdowns. Two, Bernard was left on an island vs. Smith-Njigba far too many times. No matter how good of an athlete Bernard is, no matter how capable he is, playing defensive back at this level for the first time, against this opponent required some help.

Bernard starting at cornerback was expected, but playing both ways was not expected. He had five touches on offense for 46 yards, but did not play on special teams, as he typically does.

Whether or not this experiment with Bernard turns into a permanent thing remains to be seen, but the educated guess is no, as JT Broughton is expected back healthy next fall. Depending on what Tavion Thomas does with his NFL Draft decision, not to mention what Whittingham does in the NCAA Transfer Portal at running back, Bernard could see a significant upgrade in his backfield role next fall.

As for those who asked throughout the game if there was someone who could relieve Bernard at CB, no, there was no one else. If there were someone else, that player would be playing. There was enough belief that Caine Savage and Elisha Lloyd were not the answers that Scalley, Shah and Whittingham looked across the roster for help. It’s not difficult to comprehend.

Bryson Barnes almost saved the day

Of all the potential crazy scenarios in play on Saturday, nobody had Bryson Barnes entering in the fourth quarter of a 38-all tie on their bingo card.

The first and only sack of the night came when Buckeyes safety Kourt Williams got to Rising and dragged him down for a seven-yard loss, capped by Rising smashing his head on ground. There is a case to be made that the play should have been blown dead before Rising actually went down, but no matter.

Rising stayed down for several minutes, and while Whittingham said postgame that his quarterback never lost consciousness, from way up in the press box, admittedly too far away to make any real judgment, he did appear to be briefly motionless.

Barnes, a second-year walk-on freshman, came in on second-and-17, and Utah essentially flushed the rest of the drive with two run calls before punting. Ohio State scored on its next drive to take a 45-38 lead, then Utah began its next drive on the ground, but Barnes was going to have to make a play at some point.

Barnes hit Covey for eight on third-and-9, then scrambled for 10 down to the Ohio State and after a pass interference call set Barnes up with fresh downs at the 15, he dropped a great ball to the back of the end zone for a Dalton Kincaid touchdown.

Barnes for the night: 2-for-2 for 23 yards and the 10-yard run, all on that scoring drive. Credit to him, an absolutely gigantic spot, bigger than he’s likely ever imagined, and he made it happen. Some of that is coaching the kid up, but some of that is just confidence and moxie. Good for Barnes.

This whole thing brings up questions about the quarterback position. If Barnes was QB2, has he out-practiced Jackson, or was this a disciplinary or medical issue? If Barnes has out-practiced Jackson, what does the pecking order look like come spring practice, where Rising is the unquestioned starter?

Bigger picture, let’s assume for a moment that 2022 is Rising’s final season as a fifth-year junior. Is the 2023 starter currently on the roster, or at least part of this incoming freshman class? Jackson is not unanimously viewed as the future starter, so there’s that to consider.

Utah is the early 2022 Pac-12 favorite

Whittingham said he and his staff went through the roster during the week and they tallied up that 72 of their projected 85 scholarship players for 2022 will have freshman or sophomore eligibility. That number sounds a touch high, but it’s at least close to accurate.

Much of that youth played big roles this season. Bernard; Cole Bishop; Xavier Carlton; Van Fillinger; Faybian Marks; Clark Phillips III, who was excellent against Ohio State; Karene Reid; Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Junior Tafuna; Zemaiah Vaughn; Keaton Bills; and Devaughn Vele, and that was just a sampling of this season’s freshmen.

Get one or both of the Calvert brothers going at linebacker, get Jaren Kump going off injury and slide him in at left tackle to replace Bam Olaseni. Get Connor O’Toole going at wide receiver, maybe Ricky Parks at running back and on down the list.

It’s exceptionally early, but Utah, which counts Rising, Tavion Thomas, Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, among others, as veteran guys, should probably be the Pac-12 favorite for 2022, and there’s reason to feel the Utes should open ranked in the top 15 when they go to Florida on Sept. 3.

Kiel McDonald says goodbye

In the middle of the Rose Bowl, an ESPN report surfaced that USC is pursuing Utes running backs coach Kiel McDonald for the same position under Lincoln Riley. Sunday night, McDonald posted on social media what amounted to a goodbye after five seasons under Kyle Whittingham

McDonald has coached multiple All-Pac-12 running backs, but the ramifications of his exit will go beyond the position room. The first thing that comes to mind is, as an NFL draft decision from Tavion Thomas looms, will McDonald’s exit shift his thinking? McDonald is credited with getting Thomas right after early-season ball security issues became a problem.

McDonald has gone into recruiting strongholds including Southern California, the Central Valley, parts of Texas and made hay. He was the primary on Ty Jordan, he was the primary on 2022 quarterback Nate Johnson, he was the primary on 2022 running back Jaylon Glover. He has been, by any measurement, Whittingham’s most important recruiter over the last few seasons.

Utah’s coaching staff has seen great continuity in recent seasons, but McDonald has been good, so the opportunity for more resources and presumably more money had to be appealing. This opportunity for the Colorado Springs native and Sacramento State alum is well-earned.

Other things on my mind

• Utah’s defensive line never got to Stroud, rarely even making him uncomfortable in the pocket. More of a pass rush would have taken some of the pressure off the Bernard and the secondary. The front four was good this season, but Saturday was the wrong day for a tough one.

• Whittingham had three timeouts on Ohio State’s game-winning drive and used none of them. He defended that decision by saying he would have used them had the Buckeyes been in a long-yardage situation. Ohio State wound up with a chip shot field goal with nine seconds left.

• Marvin Harrison Jr. is a four-star class of 2021 wide receiver for Ohio State, who sat behind Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, both of whom opted out of the Rose Bowl. Harrison Jr. had six catches for 71 yards and three touchdowns. That program is a talent factory.

• Yes, the San Gabriel Mountains at dusk are awesome.

• Utah punter Michael Williams dropped a snap in the third quarter, got crushed for a loss of 14 yards, and Ohio State cashed in two plays later to get to within seven at 35-28. The Utes’ punt team, and its kickoff coverage, were both problems on Saturday, not to mention all season.

• This offseason will be the first where Cam Rising gets treatment as The Guy. He took a redshirt when he first showed up, then had to deal with Jake Bentley, then had to deal with Charlie Brewer. This is Rising’s offense into the spring, into the summer, into the fall.

• A lot of “How good could we have been with Rising from the start?” revisionist stuff in the days leading up to the game. Utah’s defense laid an egg at Oregon State, so that’s one loss, and I contend they still would have lost at BYU because the offensive line wasn’t there yet, not to mention the defense got beat up that night, too. The San Diego State game? Yeah, Utah probably gets that one with Rising back there for four quarters.