Penn State defeats Utah, as Rose Bowl marks end of an era

PASADENA, Calif. — For months, beginning with practices during the scorching days of summer, through the first chill of fall, and through the tough times that November football always brings, college football teams with any ambition are looking to a distant goal: the playoffs.

On Monday, however, a compelling counterpoint to that singular goal was presented – on the lush, green grass of a sold-out Rose Bowl.

Less than 48 hours after Michigan and Ohio State suffered heartbreaking playoff losses — ones that are sure to haunt them not just for years, but for a lifetime — Penn State, the third-best team in the Big Ten Conference, found a much tastier conclusion to its season.

The Nittany Lions, their national title hopes dashed by Halloween with losses to the Buckeyes and Wolverines, left the field in jubilation, riding away from Utah in the second half for a 35-21 win.

The enthusiasm of Utah fans, who made up the majority of the 94,173-strong crowd, showed no signs of abating on their second straight trip to the Rose Bowl until the rain started pouring down in the end of the fourth quarter. But as they began to clear in the final minutes, Penn State fans, who filled the northwest corner of the stadium, stood up and roared when senior quarterback Sean Clifford was pulled from the match.

The rain did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the Nittany Lions, who moved out and celebrated in midfield as their Blue Band played happily. The scene was reminiscent of a year ago, when Ohio State won a thriller against the Utes on a last-second field goal from Noah Ruggles, whose last-second attempt against Georgia on Saturday night was not as true.

Monday’s game, while lacking the thrills often found at the Rose Bowl, represented the end of an era — or, perhaps more accurately, another step in the evolution of the game.

The recent agreement to expand college football playoffs to 12 of four teams, beginning in the 2024 season, threatened not only the Rose Bowl’s preeminent status among bowling games, but its very relevance.

Ultimately, the game’s organizers ceded its prime spot on the college football television schedule — a 2 p.m. Pacific kickoff on New Year’s Day (or the next day when the holidays fall on a Sunday like this was the case this year), which gave the match a national audience. all to himself.

And they gave up, almost for good, what since World War II had been central to the existence of the Rose Bowl – an annual clash between the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences (and their forerunners), a alliance forged on a commitment to desegregation.

This arrangement first gave ground to the growing playoff push in 2002 when it hosted Miami and Nebraska, which started under the lights on January 3 – the first time the game had not been played. New Year’s Day or the next day.

It was the first of eight times since the Rose Bowl has featured at least one outside team in the Pac-12 and Big Ten, mostly allowing its turn every three years as host of a playoff semifinal. college football. College football playoff organizers flexed their muscles in 2020, moving the 2021 game between Notre Dame and Alabama to Arlington, Texas, as the Rose Bowl could not accommodate fans due to local pandemic restrictions against mass gatherings.

Yet it’s not hyperbole to suggest that no place can match the Rose Bowl for its pageantry, history, and majestic setting.

It was an unusually cool afternoon – 54 degrees kicking off and cloud cover that obscured the setting sun from painting the San Gabriel Mountains orange, pink and red. But Penn State white with navy blue trim and Utah cherry red nonetheless brought a rich color palette to the old bowl.

A more subtle sign of the Rose Bowl’s shift in stature speaks more broadly to a phenomenon in college football — the absence of NFL prospects who choose not to play for fear of injury. That robbed Monday’s game of several players, including its most tantalizing game — Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington versus Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III.

The game went as one would expect between two teams whose defining trait this season has been their physical play – so much so that Penn State, after watching the film, concluded that the Utes, who beat Southern California in the conference championship game, would fit well in the Big Ten.

“We’re not completely old school because we have a good passing offense,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters Saturday. “But we’re into racing, non-racing action play, and that’s something that’s not really prevalent, especially in the Pac-12.”

That physical toll was particularly acute for Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, who for the second straight year was knocked out of the Rose Bowl in the second half, this time with a leg injury. It happened midway through the third quarter, shortly after freshman running back Nicholas Singleton rushed for 87 yards for a touchdown to put the Nittany Lions ahead, 21-14.

Rising, who had his helmet knocked off by a vicious blow during the Pac-12 title game, had to be helped off the field after being hit by a pair of freshman defensive backs – Kevin Winston and Zakee Wheatley. He didn’t come back.

In its place came a comforting understudy.

A year ago, Bryson Barnes, a freshman who grew up on a speck-on-a-map pig farm in Milford, Utah, threw a touchdown pass for the Utes, but his moment was dampened when Ohio State responded with a game-winning basket.

This season, there wouldn’t be such a rousing performance.

Barnes moved Utah into Penn State territory, but the pass he threw along the sideline to Devaughn Vele lasted long enough for safety Ji’Ayir Brown to intercept.

After trading punts, Penn State put the Utes at bay when Clifford threw a deep pass that KeAndre Lambert-Smith carried to midfield and passed the secondary for 88 yards.

All that was left was the rain – and the white confetti – to fall.

nytimes sport

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