LOS ANGELES (AP) — After Penn State found out it was heading to the Rose Bowl, Sean Clifford posted a photo of himself in front of the stadium when he was 11 years old and said, “dreams come true.”
Utah’s Cameron Rising nearly made his dream of leading his team to a victory in the “Granddaddy of Them All” become a reality last year, only to fall short.
On Monday, Clifford and Rising will look to lead their respective teams to a win when the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions face the No. 7 Utes in the 109th edition of the Rose Bowl.
The matchup also features what is becoming a rarity in college football — experienced quarterbacks on both sides. Clifford and Rising have played in 77 games, the highest combined total for starting QBs in a New Year’s Six bowl game this season.
Clifford — a sixth-year senior — will play in his 52nd and final game for the Nittany Lions (10-2, No. 11 CFP). For Rising, a junior, it is his 27th game for the Utes (10-3, No. 8 CFP).
“It is great to see guys that stick around that long in one program. I think it encapsulates the entire matchup,” Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.
Besides experience, Rising and Clifford have similar games. In addition to being accurate passers, both are willing to run the ball.
Both quarterbacks have young running backs and rely on their tight ends to bolster the passing attack.
“When I watch Penn State on defense, when I see them on offense, I see a lot of similarities in the approach (to Utah),” Ludwig said. These are two very like-minded programs that are going to go at it here in the Rose Bowl. Starting with the quarterback position, two veteran guys that have been around.”
Rising is the first quarterback to play in two consecutive Rose Bowls since Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. The junior’s goal this time is to come out on top after the Utes lost to Ohio State 48-45 in one of the highest-scoring games in Rose Bowl history.
Rising finished with 306 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), but came out in the fourth quarter after he hit his head hard on the turf while trying to elude a sack. Backup Bryson Barnes threw a 15-yard pass to Dalton Kincaid to tie it at 45 with 1:54 remaining, but Ohio State drove down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal.
“I remember seeing them celebrate and have the ceremony right after and seeing that after I walked off the field, and that’s been engraved in my head ever since,” Rising said. “It would mean the world just to be on that podium. Holding up that trophy is something I always dreamed about and I hope to find out what it feels like.”
A return trip to Pasadena seemed remote midway through the season when the Utes were 4-2. But they were able to win six of their last seven, including a 47-24 victory over Southern California in the Pac-12 championship game to secure their spot.
One of the biggest reasons has been the steady play of Rising.
He was fourth in the Pac-12 with a career-high 25 TD passes and was third with a 66.2% completion rate. He had eight games this season with multiple touchdown passes, and four in which he completed at least 70% of his passes.
“We believed in our game plan and what was out there for us,” Rising said. “We know we had a few pieces fall our way, but we had to handle business to make that happen.”
The one question Rising has yet to answer this week is if this will be his final game for Utah. He said he doesn’t plan to keep everyone guessing and will announce something once the season is over.
Clifford, who took part in a quarterback camp held at the Rose Bowl as a fifth grader, is tied for the third-most games among active Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks. He will leave Penn State as the school’s career leader in passing yards (10,382), passing TDs (84), completions (817), attempts (1,335), and completion percentage (.612).
A win over Utah would be his 32nd and break a tie with Trace McSorley for most in program history.
Clifford is also one of three Power Five conference quarterbacks with 10,300 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in his career.
While Clifford would like to end his collegiate career with a win, he is trying to enjoy the preparation along with getting his team to the Rose Bowl.
“I’m excited to represent Penn State one more time and do it in a big fashion like the Rose Bowl. So I can’t ask for anything more. I’m having a blast and enjoying every moment of it,′ he said.
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