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Key questions for Penn State football in the Rose Bowl game

Today is the day. After a month of anticipation, Penn State will face off against Utah in the 109th Rose Bowl Game.



Sean Clifford, Penn State football quarterback
Nov 26, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) runs the ball against the Michigan State Spartans during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State won 35-16. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the day. After a month of anticipation, Penn State will face off against Utah in the 109th Rose Bowl Game.

What’s on the line?

Outside of the two College Football Playoff games, this matchup is arguably the best of the bowl season. Both teams play a remarkably similar style of football. There are also many opt-ins to this game from each side, contrasting to most bowls.

Penn State is looking for a signature win after losing its ranked matchups this year. Given that the Big Ten was on the losing side of both CFP semifinal games, the Nittany Lions can also secure a marquee victory for the conference in bowl season.

This game has been examined exhaustively since the matchup was first announced in early December. However, the most critical questions will only be decided once the ball kicks off in Pasadena. 

Can the offense establish a run game? 

Penn State’s rushing attack took tremendous steps forward this season. However, the run game still came up short in crucial moments. For instance, the Nittany Lions gained just over 200 rushing yards against Michigan and Ohio State.

Utah has the best rushing defense Penn State has seen since October. The Utes come in allowing 107 yards per game, ranked right behind Penn State at 15th in the nation.

The running game has been the key for Penn State’s offense all year. The Nittany Lions have created balance by picking up yards on the ground early in games. Many of Sean Clifford’s best throws this season have come off play action. Once again, this is likely the most effective way for Penn State to push the ball down the field Monday.

Most importantly, this game has all the calling cards of a slugfest. Penn State should have a deeper and more dynamic backfield, especially given the news that Keyvone Lee is expected to play for the first time since October. If Penn State can get a lead late, I like its chances of using Lee, Nicholas Singleton, and Kaytron Allen to wear down the Utes’ defensive front.

Can the defense get pressure on Cam Rising?

By most metrics, Cam Rising is one of the best quarterbacks in the PAC-12. His 25 touchdowns and 66% completion rate are good enough to be top four in the conference this year. Rising has been lethal on passes thrown short and over the middle, with over a third of his 2,900 passing yards and touchdowns coming on these throws.

However, Penn State’s defense can have success if it can create disruption up front. According to PFF, Rising’s passer rating drops by 37 points when under pressure. His completion rating also plummets from 72% to 44% in these situations.

Unfortunately, this task will be a challenging one. Statistically, Utah’s offensive line could be the best Penn State has faced. The unit ranks top five nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss allowed. A stellar November propelled the Nittany Lions’ defense, but that was against lesser competition. This matchup presents a season-defining contest for Manny Diaz’s front.

Which Sean Clifford will show up?

Really – how could this question be left out? Love him or hate him, Penn State fans only have four more quarters left with Sean Clifford at quarterback.

As it has many times before in his nearly half-decade as a starter, this game could all come down to Sean Clifford’s performance. Utah comes into this game with a good – but not elite – passing defense, allowing 218 yards through the air per game. However, yards usually aren’t Clifford’s issue. We’ve seen him shine on the national stage before, most notably against Auburn in 2021 and Minnesota this year.

Even in losses, Clifford has recorded respectable numbers against talented defenses. For Clifford, the issue has been the backbreaking errors. Strip sacks, late-game interceptions, and the like. On this stage, even minor miscues could swing the moment of the game.

Like it or not, Clifford will leave the field Monday as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Penn State history. However, stats alone do not shape legacies. The glaring hole in Clifford’s resume is the need for a signature victory.

Clifford could check that box with a Rose Bowl Game win against a top-10 team. Yes, this game may not reach the heights that many hoped Penn State would attain when Clifford took the reins in 2019. But, given the mess that last two seasons have been, a win Monday would easily be considered one of the most essential games for the program in the previous decade.

Clifford can do much more than cement his legacy at Penn State with a win. The expectations for this team in 2023 were already high before this season. Those expectations have only risen in recent months with a 10-2 regular season and a talented young roster that looks poised to take the next step.

While momentum for 2023 will be high regardless of the result, a Rose Bowl Game victory would be like throwing gasoline on a raging fire. If Clifford can do that, he can end his career confident that he left Penn State in a better position than when he started. Talk about one heck of a parting gift.

Team stats – NCAA. Player stats – PFF.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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