Rose Bowl: Utah football falls to Penn State as Cam Rising again leaves with injury

Rising was lost for the night midway through the third quarter as Utah’s defense struggled throughout the game.

(Meg Oliphant | Special to The Tribune) The Utah Utes marching band performs ahead of the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Rose Bowl Stadium on Jan. 2, 2023 in Pasadena, Calif.

Pasadena, Calif. • When Cam Rising exited last season’s Rose Bowl early in the fourth quarter with a concussion, walk-on quarterback Bryson Barnes and the University of Utah nearly stole the game from Ohio State.

On Monday evening, when Rising exited the Rose Bowl with an apparent knee injury midway through the third quarter, Barnes entered, but this time, the Utes not only didn’t have an answer, Penn State made sure they never found one.

Even if there was more Barnes magic, it might not have made up for how Utah’s secondary looked like against the Nittany Lions.

Barnes and the offensive line looked overwhelmed after Rising’s exit. Combine that with the defense giving up two uncharacteristically huge plays, and the result was more frustrating than last year, a 35-21 loss to the Nittany Lions, in front of 94,873.

“We lost a little bit of our mojo when that happened,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s not the right way to respond. We needed to respond better than we did.”

With the game tied at 14, running back Nicholas Singleton, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, sprinted for an 87-yard touchdown run and a 21-14 lead. Singleton found a hole, then put it in gear at the second level after the defense sold out on a cover zero blitz.

“When you lose a gap in zero pressure, there’s nobody there to bail you out and we paid,” fifth-year safety R.J. Hubert said.

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Penn State running back Nicholas Singleton (10) runs toward the end zone for a touch down during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

In trying to respond, Utah (10-4) lost Rising after he scrambled for 9 yards on third-and-7 from the Utah 27-yard line. At the end of the play, Rising, who has been playing for nearly three months with an injured left knee, got crushed, tried to get up, then went back down.

Rising was eventually helped up and to the injury tent, and later walked under his own power to the locker room. He appeared to be hobbling as he walked off, eventually returning to the sideline in street clothes. In what may have been his final college game, Rising went just 8-for-21 for 95 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Postgame, Whittingham pulled back the curtain on the severity of Rising’s injury, without going into firm detail.

“The injury to Cam is a leg injury and it doesn’t look good, I can tell you that,” Whittingham said. “We’ll wait for confirmation from the medical people at a later date, either tonight or tomorrow. It looks like it could be something that takes a while to recover from. That’s not positive right now. It breaks my heart. He’s such a warrior and a fierce competitor. He’ll be back, I can promise you that, from the injury. Hopefully he’ll be back with us. That’s to be determined.”

Barnes took over for Rising, but the drive ended when he was intercepted downfield by Ji’Ayir Brown on a pass intended for Devaughn Vele. Utah’s next four drives with Barnes at quarterback totaled just 45 yards across 20 plays.

“You need to be ready for each and every moment that comes up,” said Barnes, who finished 10-for-19 for 112 yards with a late touchdown pass to Jaylen Dixon and the third-quarter interception. “Especially being a backup quarterback, it could have been the first quarter, the second quarter, you have to be ready when that time comes.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Head coach Kyle Whittingham, left, watches as Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) is tended to by trainers during the second half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

“This time was different than last year. Different game scenario, different situation to be put into, but at the end of the day, you have to hold the team together and keep things rolling.”

The teams traded punts to end the third quarter, but on the second play of the fourth, Penn State started to close the door. On third-and-4 from his own 12, sixth-year senior quarterback Sean Clifford connected with KeAndre Smith-Lambert for an 88-yard touchdown pass in which he beat safety Hubert on the catch before sprinting in for a 28-14 lead.

Utah, whose defense had not given up an 80-yard play in five seasons, gave up two on Monday, both of which went for touchdowns, both with Hubert, an All-Pac-12 safety, in the middle of the defensive breakdowns.

“On that one, it was me in particular,” Hubert said. “I thought I saw something from film that I’d studied on them, I was pretty sure he would run a corner (route), but he went vertical on that. Props to them, they had a good game plan in some of the things they did and the adjustments they made.”

With All-American cornerback Clark Phillips III opting out of the Rose Bowl, Hubert and the secondary struggled to contain Clifford and what has not been a prolific Penn State passing attack. Clifford, who had just three games of at least 270 passing yards this season entering the night, finished 16-for-22 for 279 yards and two touchdown passes. Penn State finished with 448 yards of total offense, 114 more than the Utes give up per game.

Most of the first half went as expected in the form of a low-scoring, physical, defensive-minded battle between teams that, on paper, matched up evenly. Midway through the second quarter, though, the pace picked up.

Rising capped a run-heavy 13-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to the back corner of the end zone to Thomas Yassmin to tie the game at 7, but Penn State answered. Clifford hit Mitchell Tinsley over the middle for a 10-yard score on first down to retake a 14-7 lead with 4:47 before halftime.

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Utah tight end Thomas Yassmin (87) catches a touchdown pass against Penn State linebacker Abdul Carter (11) during the first half in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

The key play of that Nittany Lions scoring drive was Clifford, on third-and-8 from his own 32-yard line, evading what appeared to be a sure Utah sack off a blitz, scrambling out of the pocket, and hitting sophomore wide receiver Smith-Lambert for 32 yards down to the Utah 36. Clifford hit Tinsley for the touchdown three plays later.

A 47-yard completion from Rising to Devaughn Vele down the left sideline, in which Vele had to come back to get it, on the ensuing drive preceded Ja’Quinden Jackson’s 19-yard touchdown to send the game to halftime tied at 14.

The Utes wouldn’t score again until the game’s final minute.

“We’re obviously grateful to have made it to the Rose Bowl for a second year in a row,” linebacker Karene Reid said. “Like coach Whitt said, there are a lot of positives for this season and the season before. But it’s definitely disappointing the way it ended.”