Ohio State is scheduled to face Utah in the 108th Rose Bowl Game Saturday with both coaches optimistic the coronavirus pandemic will not affect the game after five bowl games were canceled and two others had to change their matchups because of COVID-19 issues.
While the Buckeyes have had “a few isolated incidents here and there” this season “we feel strong going into the game that we’ll have a full roster ready to go,” coach Ryan Day said at Friday’s news conference.
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said, “COVID, no issues, knock on wood. We seem to be in really good shape there.”
While the coronavirus seems unlikely to effect the game, it did cause media day to be canceled because indoor space constraints would not allow for social distancing. Lawry’s Beef Bowl, where the Rose Bowl teams dine separately at the Beverly Hills prime rib restaurant, was also canceled “given the growing concerns around COVID-19 and the Omicron variant,” the restaurant announced.
The cancellation was made “out of an abundance of caution and safety of our staff and of the players,” the statement said.
Lawry’s packaged and delivered takeout meals for the players instead.
All fans 12 and older must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test conducted within 72 hours before the game’s 2 p.m. start time to enter the Rose Bowl.
Utah earned its first Rose Bowl berth in its 11 seasons in the Pac-12 Conference with a 38-10 victory over Oregon in the conference’s championship game Dec. 3.
Ohio State (10-2) will be playing for the first time since Nov. 27 when a 42-27 loss to Michigan ended its hopes for a third consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff.
With the Big Ten champion Wolverines qualifying for the College Football Playoff, the Tournament of Roses Association selected the Buckeyes as the replacement from the conference. They were sixth in the playoff rankings, the highest among the conference’s remaining teams.
The Utes (10-3) enter the Rose Bowl on a six-game winning streak. Utah began the season 1-2, with losses to Brigham Young and San Diego State, then won its next three games before a 42-34 loss to Oregon State on Oct. 23.
Whittingham credits the turnaround to the switch to sophomore Cameron Rising as the team’s quarterback, improved offensive line play and the emergence of running back Tavion Thomas.
Rising entered the Sept. 18 San Diego State game with five minutes, 24 seconds left in the third quarter and Utah trailing 24-10. The alumnus of Newbury Park High School in Ventura County led the Utes on two touchdown drives in the final 6:33 of regulation, tying the score, 24-24. Both teams scored touchdowns on the first overtime possessions and missed field goals on their second.
The Aztecs were successful on a two-point conversion attempt to start the third overtime but Rising’s pass was incomplete on Utah’s attempt, ending the game.
On the Tuesday following the game, Rising was listed as the starter on the Utes’ official depth chart the same day it was announced that Charlie Brewer, who started the first three games, had left the program, later transferring to Liberty.
“We ended up losing the game, but it was very apparent that he was what we needed,” Whittingham said. “He proceeded to start the rest of the season and just got better and better as the weeks went on.”
Rising, who began his college career at Texas, was a first-team All- Pac-12 selection, the conference’s highest-rated quarterback in ESPN’s QBR Rating and ninth overall with a 81.2 rating.
Thomas “had some fumble issues earlier in the season, but he got the ball security situation fixed,” Whittingham said. “Then once he started getting some momentum, that made us a lot more physical in the run game.”
Thomas rushed for 1,041 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns in his first season at Utah after two seasons at Cincinnati, where he rushed for 689 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games. Thomas’ 20 rushing touchdowns are tied for third among Football Bowl Subdivision players.
The Buckeyes will be without four starters who opted out — receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett — and additional starters could miss the game because of injuries.
“I think certainly we’ve had our adversity over the last month, but what a great opportunity for some of our younger guys to come in and start this thing off the right way,” Day said. “Certainly at receiver, that’s going to be a great opportunity for them.”
Ohio State leads the nation in scoring, averaging 45.5 points per game, and total offense, averaging 551.4 yards.
Buckeyes’ redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, an alumnus of Rancho Cucamonga High, was fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. He is among the top seven in eight statistical categories, including second in pass efficiency (182.24), fourth in yards per game (351.1) and fifth in touchdown passes (38).
The teams have one common opponent — Oregon. Ohio State lost to the Ducks, 35-28, Sept. 11, at Columbus, Ohio. The Utes defeated Oregon, 38-7, on Nov. 20 at Salt Lake City, in addition to their victory in conference championship game.
The Buckeyes were seventh in the most recent Associated Press poll while Utah was 10th.
Ohio State will be making its 16th Rose Bowl appearance, third all- time behind USC’s 34 and Michigan’s 20, and first since Jan. 1, 2019, when it defeated Washington, 28-23. The Buckeyes’ eight Rose Bowl victories are tied for second with Michigan behind USC’s 25.
The Rose Bowl is the Utes’ third game in Los Angeles County this season. In addition to its loss to San Diego State at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Utah defeated USC, 42-26, Oct. 9, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, ending a nine-game losing streak against the Trojans in Los Angeles dating back to 1919.
There will be a predominantly pro-Utah crowd at the 91,136-seat stadium. While Ohio State sold approximately 13,000 of its allotted 20,000 tickets, approximately 60,000 Utah fans are expected to attend the game, according to athletic director Mark Harlan.