Utah Utes: 3 things to know about Penn State's opponent in Rose Bowl

Penn State has the opportunity to play one of the best, and most overlooked, football programs in the nation for the first time.

The Nittany Lions will start preparing for their first-ever meeting with the Utah Utes in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Certainly, this is not a traditional power and well-known opponent like the one the Utes just beat down twice this season ― the USC Trojans. Rather, Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011 and have gradually built itself into a consistent, reliable title contender under longtime coach Kyle Whittingham.

Dec 2, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Utah Utes wide receiver Money Parks (10) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Southern California Trojans during the second half of the PAC-12 Football Championship at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 2, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Utah Utes wide receiver Money Parks (10) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Southern California Trojans during the second half of the PAC-12 Football Championship at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State will be going to its first Rose Bowl since the 2016 season and its fourth since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

Utah, meanwhile, will be playing in this game for the second straight season.

Here are three things to know about Penn State's next opponent:

Utah is a rising football power

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates after his team scores against Oregon State during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates after his team scores against Oregon State during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Utes have done far more than just show they just belong in the Pac-12 since joining in 2011.

They won 10 games, including a bowl, in the 2015 season and nine games three other times. But their "breakthrough" has truly seemed to come about in the past few years.

They won 11 times and lost just once in league play in 2019. After playing just five games during the shortened 2020 COVID season, they came back strong last year. They won 10 times in 2021 and again this season, both times qualifying for the Rose Bowl.

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They traded knockdown blows with Ohio State last January in Pasadena, finally falling to the Buckeyes, 48-45.

Whittingham has led the program for nearly 20 years and has built unparalleled stability. This team may be his grittiest and toughest-working one yet.

Explosive Utah offense

Utah's Cameron Rising rushes on a quarterback keeper against Oregon during the second half in final home game of season for the Ducks at Autzen Stadium.
Utah's Cameron Rising rushes on a quarterback keeper against Oregon during the second half in final home game of season for the Ducks at Autzen Stadium.

The Utes are able to score from all over the field in multiple forms and fashion. They are ranked No. 8 nationally in points per game (40).

They also are one of the top rushing teams in the country (220 yards per game), good for No. 10 nationally. That's keyed by their do-everything, take-a-big-hit QB Cam Rising.

Rising is one of the toughest most durable quarterbacks around (see that helmet-flying hit he absorbed vs. USC Friday night?) and gets it done with his legs, as well as his arm. He's run for 409 yards this season (6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns.

Though Utah has not employed a dominant, No. 1 runner through the season, five Utes have 360 more rushing yards on the season. Tailback Ja'Quinden Jackson, switched from quarterback early this season, was the star Friday, running for 105 yards and two TDs against the Trojans. He averages nearly 7 yards per carry.

Rising is a dynamic passer, too. He's thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. His top target is 6-foot-4 tight end Dalton Kinkaid with 70 catches for 890 yards and eight scores.

Utah is resilient, motivated

The Utes showed how they would not let their promising season slip away even after two early losses. Even after a bitter November defeat to rival Oregon.

Their performance against playoff-hopeful USC demonstrated that best.

The Utes knocked off the Trojans in October to get their season revving again with Rising scoring five times. They took that resiliency to another level Friday night after falling behind USC and Heisman Trophy-hopeful quarterback Caleb Williams by two touchdowns.

After Williams appeared to injure his leg while making a long run, the Utah defenses capitalized and pressured him repeatedly and never allowed him to rally.

More impressively, Rising and the offense dominated USC in the second half. Utah converted 5 of 11 third downs, busted three plays of 50 yards or more and finished with 533 yards of total offense. They deftly spread the field in the pass game from their tight ends to running backs to wideouts.

Last year, the Utes beat Oregon twice to make it to the Rose.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at  fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Penn State football opponent in Rose Bowl 2023: Utah Utes