Put in the same situation as last year, Utah’s Ja’Quinden Jackson leaves this Rose Bowl with a more solidified future

The quarterback turned running back makes his case to be RB1 in 2023.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) scores a touchdown during the first half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

Ja’Quinden Jackson had been there before.

Well, not there exactly. But in the same situation at least.

Last year, he stood on the sideline as Utah’s season came down to an instant classic in Pasadena — a 48-45 loss to Ohio State in the waning seconds. When quarterback Cam Rising went out, Jackson still waited as a spectator, watching a former pig farmer, Bryson Barnes, become a Rose Bowl hero instead of him.

Convention would have said it should have been Jackson in there — a former Texas transfer quarterback. But Jackson lost that battle, buried third in the depth chart, and contemplated his future that night rather than partake in Utah’s biggest moment.

Fast-forward one year and Jackson saw it happen again. Same situation, same sideline. Rising went down in the third quarter and Barnes came in again. Except this time, Jackson wasn’t watching. He was taking handoffs and sheding blockers — playing running back as Utah tried to claw its way back.

(Meg Oliphant | Special to The Tribune) Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) reacts after a loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions at Rose Bowl Stadium on Jan. 2, 2023 in Pasadena, California.

He finished with a team-leading 81 rushing yards and a touchdown. Utah would lose to Penn State, 35-21. But at least this time Jackson played, and possibly solidified a future in the program that looked so murky the last time he walked off the Rose Bowl field.

“He will be a running back,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said this week. “He will be a big-time running back.”

He sure looked like exactly that. At the Rose Bowl, Jackson once again made his best case to be Utah’s main rushing option in 2023.

He led the team in carries (13), explosive plays and yards per touch (6.2). He accented it with a 19-yard spinning touchdown where he bounced off of three would-be tacklers. It briefly tied the game at 14 before the Nittany Lions scored 21 unanswered points.

Considering it wasn’t until September when Jackson made the move to running back, it was a performance that gave instant credibility that he would be a sustainable option for a reloaded Utes team in 2023.

With rushers like Micah Bernard and Jaylon Glover returning to the program, Jackson will still be the most explosive rusher coming back now. He finished with 531 yards this year. Bernard finished with 534 yards on almost 30 more carries. Glover sits at 360.

“I talked to my mom and my uncles and got their advice about [whether I should transfer] after last year’s Rose Bowl,” Jackson said after the Pac-12 championship game, where had the game-sealing rushing touchdown. “They told me to stick it out and wait your turn. That’s what I did.”

This Rose Bowl was partly vindication for that move. It was also table-setting for a future that won’t have Jackson watching big moments on the sidelines any longer.

So while Utah will leave Pasadena with a second straight Rose Bowl loss, this time Jackson’s individual future looks much different than it did a year ago.