On Monday we talked about moments that defined the Utah season as the Utes started off in a 1-2 hole only to figure things out and hand Oregon a pair of losses over the span of three weeks to win the Pac-12.
2021 was the third time in four years that Utah had reached the Pac-12 title game but the first time that the Utes were able to win the league crown and only the second time in the history of the game (since 2011) that a South Division team was able to win.
Now Utah heads to the Rose Bowl for the first time in program history while the Ohio State Buckeyes are set to make their 16th trip to the Granddaddy of them All.
Many Ohio State fans don’t know a whole lot about this Utah team other than the two wins over Oregon. A few names on the roster may be somewhat familiar to those who pay close attention like Devin Lloyd, Clark Phillips and Tavion Thomas, but if you were to walk around the Oval on the Ohio State campus, many students couldn’t tell you much more about the Utes.
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For those who know a little bit about the Utes, they see a physical team that can run the ball right at opponents, a departure from the thoughts of the Pac-12 being a finesse passing league.
But times are changing as five teams in the Pac-12 rank in the top-25 in rushing offenses, with Utah leading the way in averaging 216 yards per game on the ground. The Utes are also tied for first in the conference with 35 rushing touchdowns on the year, 11 more than the Buckeyes, a team that goes about things differently than the Utes.
Let’s take a look at the primary ball-carriers for the Utes, what makes each of them tick and then see what this means for the Buckeyes for the upcoming Rose Bowl game.
Thomas is listed as a 6-foot-2, 221-pound bruiser of a running back. The former four-star back out of Dayton Dunbar high school originally signed with the Cincinnati Bearcats and spent two years in that program, rushing for 689 yards and seven touchdowns.
Tavion would transfer to Independence Community College in 2020 before landing with Utah in 2021 and his lone season to date with the Utes has been a memorable one as he rushed for 1,041 yards in just 12 games of action (did not play against Arizona) on 186 carries with 20 touchdowns. Those 20 touchdowns are tied for third in the nation by any one player.
Kyle Whittingham’s Utes had to bring Thomas on slowly this season as he had ball-security issues to start the year but in his last eight games the back has seen at least 15 carries in each of them as he has become Utah’s No. 1 rusher.
As with many running backs, Thomas can be streaky and had a three-game streak where he scored 11 touchdowns over the course of those games (UCLA, Stanford, Oregon). Granted, there are few run defenses in the nation much worse than UCLA or Stanford but the efforts against Oregon (first game) were quite impressive as Thomas had all the confidence in the world.
Thomas is not used in the passing game, or at least not yet, with only two receptions for three yards.
Pledger is more of a change-of-pace from Thomas as a 5-foot-9, 196-pound junior. T.J. was a four-star recruit coming out of IMG Academy and signed with Oklahoma out of high school and would play for three seasons with the Sooners.
Over those games Pledger would rush for 695 yards on 135 carries and six scores in a rotational role with the Sooners.
In 2021, Pledger has nearly hit all of those numbers over the course of just one season with 671 yards on 97 carries with six touchdowns.
While Thomas was out for the Arizona game, that was Pledger’s chance to be the main back and he rushed for 119 yards and two scores on 25 carries against the Wildcats.
That Arizona game was one of four 100-yard games for Pledger with three of those games taking place over the team’s last five contests.
Pledger is used a little bit more in the passing game than Thomas, but not much with only 10 receptions on the year for 107 yards.
The third back is redshirt freshman Micah Bernard. The 6-foot, 202-pounder was a one-time Oregon commit in the class of 2019 but flipped to Utah to sign with the Utes. He would redshirt in 2019 and would play in all five games in 2020 but not see that year count against his eligibility.
This season has seen Bernard go for 492 yards on 84 carries and two scores. Bernard has played in 12 games this season (did not play against Arizona State) and record one 100-yard game (against Stanford).
He has been lightly used down the stretch, recording just 11 carries over the course of the last three games (Oregon, Colorado, Oregon).
Bernard is the most adept in the passing game with 24 receptions for 236 yards and a touchdown, so the Buckeyes better be aware of that when Bernard takes the field.
People have been quick to point out that Utah is going to try and out-physical Ohio State and there might be some truth to that in looking at the numbers.
Utah’s top three rushers have combined for 2,204 yards on the season in the running game. Michigan’s top three backs of Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for 2,385 yards on the ground.
Ohio State’s top three backs (based on yardage) of TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Master Teague were not far off, with 2,010 yards in 12 games where Utah and Michigan both had the benefit of playing in one more game with conference championship games.
Another similarity between Utah and Michigan are the fact that both teams are extremely close to 50/50 when it comes to rushing and passing yards on the season.
|Team||% of Rush Yards||% of Pass Yards|
But strangely enough, when you look at play calls, runs versus pass, with those same teams, Ohio State is closest to being 50/50 in run/pass play calls.
|Team||% of Run Plays||% of Pass Plays|
One thing that cannot be ignored is that Thomas (6-2, 221) and Michigan’s Haskins (6-1, 220) are very similar in build, and nobody needs to be reminded what kind of issues the Buckeyes had in getting Haskins to the ground.
At least the Buckeyes know what they will be facing, the question will be if they will be able to have a different end result in the Rose Bowl.