2023 Rose Bowl: Utah will count on backups vs. ‘elite’ Penn State ‘D’

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham instructs his team during practice ahead of the Rose Bowl game against Penn State, Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Carson, Calif. Due to injuries, the Utah offense will rely on the “next man up” at several positions in Monday’s Rose Bowl game.

Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — If you would have told anyone who follows Utah football back in August that going into the final game of the season the Utes would be without running backs Tavion Thomas and Chris Curry, as well as tight ends Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe, few would have given this offense much of a shot.

“Anytime you have great players like that not on your side, it makes it that much tougher. But I know the guys right behind them are up to the task. They’ve been doing everything that they can to be ready to go. I’m looking forward to seeing them go to work.” — Utah quarterback Cam Rising

But heading into the Rose Bowl Monday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) against No. 11 Penn State, No. 8 Utah, which averaged 40 points a game this season, has high expectations against a stingy Nittany Lions defense. 

Being shorthanded is a situation that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has grown accustomed to.

“You’ve seen through the course of the year, it’s been a different menu. We’ve drawn from a different menu each week,” he said. “For whatever reasons, players going down, players not able to participate this week, new players stepping up, a little shift in the emphasis of what we’re trying to do offensively, so this is just another challenge with that. But this particular season has been as challenging as any other in terms of having to adjust week in and week out based on the personnel available.”

With so many playmakers and weapons unavailable for this matchup, several unlikely and unheralded players will be counted on in Pasadena — Ja’Quinden Jackson, who was switched from quarterback to running back in September; true freshman running back Jaylon Glover; tight ends Thomas Yassmin and Logan Kendall; and wide receivers Money Parks and Jaylen Dixon

These are guys that saw plenty of action in mop-up time in a 73-7 thrashing of Southern Utah way back in September. Now, they’ll take the stage, and play major roles, in the “Granddaddy of Them All” on Jan. 2.

Quarterback Cam Rising, who has dealt with his own injury issues this season and didn’t play in the Washington State game, is confident in all his teammates.

“Anytime you have great players like that not on your side, it makes it that much tougher,” he said. “But I know the guys right behind them are up to the task. They’ve been doing everything that they can to be ready to go. I’m looking forward to seeing them go to work.”

Ludwig is under no illusions that taking on a Nittany Lions defense that allows just 18 points a game, which ranks No. 9 nationally, will be easy. 

Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig answers questions during a press conference ahead of the Rose Bowl game against Penn State Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

“I think the defense we’re facing in Penn State is elite, their national rankings are off the chart in every statistical category. That one that jumps out at me is they are the No. 1 defense in the country in creating havoc, which is turnovers, sacks, PBUs, hits on the quarterback,” he said. “They have very good players, very sophisticated scheme. I know (defensive coordinator Manny) Diaz in his first year has done a phenomenal job with that group.”

The Utes say they’re up to the challenge. Even if some of their most dynamic playmakers are sidelined. 

“It’s a testament to the philosophy of ‘next man up.’ We have one heckuva team — we have a lot of great players. Young players that are coming in and they have to mature fast. That’s what Utah football is all about,” said receiver Devaughn Vele. “When you’re ready to play, your number is going to be called and you have to be ready for it.

“Although it’s tough to lose great players like Dalton and Tavion, and Brant as well, we understand that we have guys that can fill in those spots and bring their own creativity to the offense and put up the numbers we normally put up because that’s just the philosophy that we have at Utah.”

Yassmin said the ability to have less-experienced players rise to the occasion is “just a credit to our recruiting and our depth. You’ve seen freshmen stepping up and guys that haven’t seen a lot of college snaps before, myself included. They have the mentality that if someone goes down, the next man’s gotta step up and we have to be able to run with the same amount of efficiency. We’ve just gotta keep it going.”

Rising is happy to see Yassmin have an opportunity to be in the spotlight.

Utah tight end Thomas Yassmin smiles during practice ahead of the Rose Bowl game against Penn State, Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Carson, Calif. Yassmin is one of a number of backups who will need to step up for the Utes next Monday.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

“I knew Thomas was special ever since 2019 when we were playing on the scout team together,” Rising said. “He was making big-time plays and making guys miss and getting open. I was just waiting for his moment to go out there and go to work and get his opportunity. He’s taken it and made the most of it. I’m excited to see what he can do in this game.”

Ludwig told reporters not to sleep on Kendall, a transfer from Idaho. He’s played a role under the radar, but he’s been a vital part of the offense, too.

“Please do not forget Logan, (who) has come in as a grad transfer and done a phenomenal job for us, often unsung, much like a sixth O-lineman for us, but he does do a nice job catching passes down the field,” Ludwig said. “But with Brant and Dalton as tight ends, maybe you draw from this selection of the playbook, with Yassmin and Logan, that selection just has to move a little bit, because they are different players. They have different skills and abilities. My job is to highlight those skills and abilities.”

In Utah’s 47-24 shellacking of USC in the Pac-12 championship game, Yassmin scored on a 60-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, which was followed by a 53-yard TD run by Jackson to seal the victory. 

Meanwhile, Parks was Utah’s leading receiver against the Trojans, catching four passes for 88 yards and a touchdown while Dixon hauled in six passes for 55 yards and a TD.

Running back Micah Bernard said the mindset for his team doesn’t change based on who’s on the field. 

“We know what we want to accomplish — the playoffs. We can’t concede our playoff hopes when people go down. That’s how we think,” he said. “Guys go down, next man up. He knows what we have to do to keep those hopes alive. We’ve gotta believe as an offense. Coach Lud does a great job of saying, ‘It’s not about the plays, it’s about the players.’”

And the guy engineering Utah’s offense, Rising, has effectively adjusted to different faces in the lineup this season. 

“He’s done a very good job,” Ludwig said. “Cam is very good about distributing the football, not locking in on one particular player, but I would point out, Money Parks, Jaylen Dixon, Thomas Yassmin are players that have had to step up with some of the injuries to the tight end position, and Cam hasn’t batted an eye. He just rolls through it. He’s got his read progressions, he’s got things he’s got to take care of to get the football distributed, and he’s done a nice job with that.”

Now, with a lot of help from unheralded players, Rising and the Utes will try to earn a historic victory in the Rose Bowl against Penn State.

Rose Bowl on the air

No. 8 Utah (10-3)
vs. No. 11 Penn State (10-2)
Tuesday, 3 p.m. MST
Rose Bowl
Pasadena, California
Radio: ESPN 700

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