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No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 Penn State: Rose Bowl preview, best bets

Rose Bowl: No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 Penn State

Location: Pasadena, California

Date: Jan. 2 (5 p.m. ET)

TV: ESPN

Line: Utah -2.5

Total: 52.5

How these teams got here

Utah (10-3): Utah had a rather winding route to this stage. The Utes had preseason playoff hype, but they lost a heartbreaker on the road to Florida to open the season. From there, Utah rebounded with four straight blowout wins before dropping another road game, this time to UCLA. Though their CFP hopes were greatly diminished by a second loss, the Utes kept fighting in an effort to repeat as Pac-12 champions.

After the UCLA loss, Utah handed USC its first loss of the year with a game-winning two-point conversion in the final minute. That would start a four-game winning streak for the Utes, even as star players like Cameron Rising and Dalton Kincaid were limited by injuries. A clearly hobbled Rising threw three interceptions in a road loss to Oregon. It was a loss that seemed to doom Utah’s conference title chances, but the Utes won their final two games and had multiple other pieces fall into place in the final weekend of the season to send Utah back to the Pac-12 title game.

The Pac-12 title game was a rematch with USC. Utah fell behind 17-3 early, but stormed back as Heisman winner Caleb Williams was hobbled by a hamstring injury for the Trojans. Utah turned that 17-3 deficit into a 47-24 win, giving the Utes another Pac-12 title and trip to the Rose Bowl.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising throws a pass against Southern California during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Cameron Rising has Utah in the Rose Bowl for a second consecutive season. The Utes lost to Ohio State last season. In 2023, they will take on Penn State. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

Penn State (10-2): On the heels of a combined 11-11 record in 2020 and 2021, Penn State is back on a big stage to cap off the 2022 season. The Nittany Lions have reached double-digit victories for the fourth time in the past seven seasons. It’s also the program’s fourth major bowl game during that span.

PSU won all 10 games in which it was the favorite this season, but lost twice as an underdog to the Big Ten’s two College Football Playoff participants — Michigan and Ohio State. Those two losses came in a three-week span and by a combined 37 points. When PSU played inferior competition, it dominated. All but one of PSU’s 10 wins came by a double-digit margin.

After PSU fell to 7-2 with a 44-31 home loss to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions won their final four games by a combined margin of 165-40.

Notable transfers/opt outs

Utah: TE Dalton Kincaid, CB Clark Phillips, RB Tavion Thomas

Penn State: CB Joey Porter Jr., WR Parker Washington

Players to know

Utah QB Cameron Rising: He has been the heart and soul of the Utah offense since he took over as starter early last season. Rising has led the Utes to consecutive Pac-12 titles and is eager to get another shot at winning a Rose Bowl. This season, Rising has thrown for 2,939 yards and 25 touchdowns and also has rushed for 409 yards and six scores. Rising was knocked out of last season’s Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, which culminated in a heartbreaking 48-45 loss. Rising has been banged up for much of the season and even missed the Washington State game. His ability to run was a big part of the win over USC in October, but he has been rather limited in that area in the weeks since. After having a few weeks off, will Rising’s legs be unleashed in this game?

Penn State LB Abdul Carter: Penn State had an array of young players emerge over the course of the 2022 season. Included in that bunch are true freshmen running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Those two have combined to rush for 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns on the year, but linebacker Abdul Carter is going to need to have a big game if PSU wants to get the win in Pasadena. Carter has drawn comparisons to Micah Parsons, and it’s not just because he also wears No. 11. Carter has been that good. He has the sideline-to-sideline speed needed to track down ball-carriers, and the burst to close quickly when in pursuit of the quarterback. He enters the bowl game with 55 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, and he didn’t become a starter until midseason.

Penn State linebacker Abdul Carter (11) rushes during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan State, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State linebacker Abdul Carter leads the Nittany Lions with 6.5 sacks this season. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

What’s on the line

Utah: Before playing in the Rose Bowl last season, Utah had played in just two major bowl games — wins in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl and the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Kyle Whittingham has been Utah’s head coach since 2005 and guided the program’s ascendance from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. In 2008, the Utes went undefeated but were ranked No. 6 in the final BCS rankings. Utah then went on to beat Alabama handily in the Sugar Bowl.

Utah moved into the Pac-12 in 2011 and didn’t reach the conference championship game until the 2019 season. The Utes lost to Oregon that year with a possible playoff berth on the line. In the past two seasons, the Utes got over the hump and won the Pac-12. With a win, Utah would win the Rose Bowl for the first time in program history.

Penn State: This is the fifth Rose Bowl appearance in Penn State history. The Nittany Lions lost their last two trips to Pasadena, falling to USC in 2008 and 2016. PSU is 1-3 all-time in the Rose Bowl with the program’s lone win coming back in 1994, the season when PSU went 12-0 under Joe Paterno. The 2016 Rose Bowl was the first New Year’s Six bowl trip for PSU under James Franklin. Since then, PSU beat Washington in the Fiesta Bowl in 2017 and Memphis in the Cotton Bowl in 2019. With a win, PSU can reach the 11-win mark for the fourth time under Franklin and create a springboard into next season. PSU has a lot of young talent, and a Rose Bowl win would bring the Nittany Lions only more hype entering the offseason.

Best bets

Sam Cooper: There are some really impressive athletes on Penn State’s defense and I think that’s going to pose a tough matchup for the Utah offense — especially without Dalton Kincaid. Rising’s ability to run is going to be a key for the Utes, who really want to win a Rose Bowl after losing the heartbreaker to Ohio State last January. But I think PSU is the better team overall. I don’t think Utah’s defense is as good as it has been in recent seasons and Penn State’s offensive line is much healthier after the layoff. PSU should be able to run the ball and has the better defense. I’ll take the points. Pick: Penn State +2.5

Nick Bromberg: I’m not sure how the Utah offense is going to function without Dalton Kincaid. We may find out that he was even more integral than we realized he was to Utah’s offensive success. I lean Penn State on the moneyline, especially with better than even money odds. So give me the Nittany Lions with the points and the under is also a tantalizing play. Pick: Penn State +2.5