(WHTM) — For the first time in Penn State history, the Nittany Lions will square off against the University of Utah in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, California. Penn State doesn’t have too much exposure to the Pac-12 in general. Their last game against a team from the conference was in 2017 when the Nittany Lions defeated Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.

To prepare for Utah, we break down three big things to know about the back-to-back Pac-12 Conference Champion Utes ahead of their second straight Rose Bowl appearance.

A Stingy Defense

Utah boasts one one of the best and most balanced defenses in college football. The Utes are 19th in the total defense in the FBS and also buckle down heavily against the run. Utah only allows 107 rushing yards per game, which ranks inside the top 20 in college football.

They are also a ball-hawking unit. Utah and Penn State are both tied with 24 turnovers this season (7th best in CFB). The trenches will be a huge emphasis in this game with Penn State trying to open big enough gaps for their talented duo freshman of running backs in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, while Utah will try and put as much pressure on Sean Clifford with their nearly three sacks per game.

Utah Stars Opting-Out

It’s the new normal in college football for a program’s biggest stars to opt-out of bowl games and focus on staying healthy to prepare for their NFL futures. And it was expected that Utah, the 7th-ranked team in the country in the final AP poll, would have their fair share of players heading to the next level.

Their defense is taking a hit after star cornerback Clark Phillips lll announced that he will not be participating in the 2023 Rose Bowl and declared for the NFL Draft. Phillips was unanimously voted a First-Team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and hauled in six interceptions this season.

Utah will also be without star tight end Dalton Kincaid, the team’s leader in receiving yards. In a statement on his Twitter, Kincaid said he was opting-out of the game due to an injury, but he did not disclose specifics. He will rehab and get ready for the NFL Draft. He’s a consensus top three tight end in this upcoming draft class.

Finally, Utah will be without starting running back Tavion Thomas. This news isn’t as surprising as he has missed time this season due to a toe injury. Thomas hasn’t appeared in a game since Nov. 19 when Utah lost to Oregon.

Lighting Up The Scoreboard

Even though Utah will be without a few key players on the offensive side of the ball, they still have dangerous weapons all over the field. And their starting quarterback, junior Cameron Rising, is slated to play in the Rose Bowl.

Rising has thrown for 2,939 yards, 25 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Rising, a dual-threat, has also added six rushing scores.

Utah is the 8th-ranked scoring offense in the country and although they are missing Tavion Thomas, they have a potent ground game. They have a trio of running backs with 68+ carries each and all average no less than five yards per carry.

The Utes love to control the pace of the game and are one of the leading teams in time of possession. If they get ahead, expect them to try and bleed as much clock on the ground as possible to keep the game in their favor.

How To Watch The Rose Bowl

Penn State and Utah will meet in the 109th Rose Bowl game on Monday Jan. 2 at 5:00 p.m. (EST) and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.