ESPN hosted a media availability on Tuesday, Dec. 27, with Emmy Award-winning analyst Kirk Herbstreit to preview the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Dec. 31: No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Georgia) and The Rose Bowl Game presented by Prudential (Jan. 2: No. 9 Penn State vs. No. 7 Utah). Herbstreit will call both games during the upcoming weekend as part of ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six.
Kirk Herbstreit: Happy holidays to everybody. Hope everybody’s had a chance to get a few days to regroup before we get down to this stretch here. I’ve been doing both Thursday Night Football and Saturday all year, but this is, I think, a stretch that I looked at all year as one I was looking forward to just wondering what teams might be in these games. Knowing I had the Titans and the Cowboys on Thursday, I wondered who the playoff game would be, and then the Rose Bowl Game would be, and now that it’s here, it’s a lot of fun to try to keep everything organized. I just got off a Zoom with Mike McCarthy and now I’ve got to get ready to talk with Ohio State and Georgia. So it’s a little bit different in that way. But I am incredibly grateful and excited to be able to do these games and the matchups, at least on paper, look like they could be a lot of fun.
You’re the last quarterback or the only Ohio State quarterback who has ever faced Georgia. What do you remember about that game and the things, whether it was the atmosphere from Georgia fans, what comes to mind when you think about that Citrus Bowl?
KH: I wish I would’ve played better. It was not a great game for me personally, and not that it’s not a great memory. I remember back in those days, the Citrus Bowl was a New Year’s Six-kind of game. It was two highly ranked teams and teams that just came up a little bit short on their goals in the Big 10 of getting to the Rose Bowl and the SEC of getting to the Sugar Bowl. And Georgia had a great team, great individual players, Eric Zeier and Andre Hastings, and, of course, Garrison Hearst, Mitch Davis on defense, who’s that’s the guy I probably remember the most because he was chasing me around. What a talented guy he was. Back then, more so than now, there was a big, huge rivalry, and the Big Ten against the SEC, I think you felt a sense of not just Ohio State against Georgia, but the Big Ten against the SEC and who had bragging rights was a big deal back in those days. And we had a chance to win it near the end and we had to fumble late in the game deep in their territory and gave the ball back to Georgia. And Zeier hit Hastings, I think, on a big play and then they went down and won the game. But great game. Like I said, if anything, you’d just love to play a little bit better, but Mitch Davis had a lot to do with why I didn’t play great that game.
Will Muschamp today, I’m sure you saw, he talked about a throw that you made in a luncheon leading up to the game, and he said from when you got up and threw a pass across the room, “I knew we had a shot to win.” Do you remember what he’s talking about? Do you have a response to what Will was talking about there?
KH: I do remember it was one of those autographed balls, those white panel balls, and I remember throwing it and not being real happy with how far I had to throw it because I couldn’t grip the ball. So, I shot putted the ball. That’s about all I remember. But no, I don’t really have any comments or any reaction at all to what Will said.
When you look at Utah’s program, how much of these last two seasons, winning the Pac-12, then defending it, getting to two Rose Bowls, how much has this two-year stretch enhanced their perception as a national brand?
KH: I think anytime you win the Pac-12 Championship and you go to the Rose Bowl, I think people that weren’t familiar with the brand or with Kyle Whittingham and what he’s been doing for a long time, I think, obviously, if you’re a fan of the sport, it makes you want to dig a little bit deeper and recognize what they’ve been. We go back to covering them when they were in the Mountain West, and even when Urban was there, I used to do Thursday Night Football out there, so I’ve known about the brand of football that they’ve played for almost 20 years. I’ve tried to stand on mountaintops and tried to explain to people their brand of football and how consistent it’s been over the years. I feel really good that they’ve been able to get to the Rose Bowl the last couple years and show who they are. And I don’t think it’s the last two years. I think it’s the last 20 years or longer of who they’ve been. And I’m just happy for that program that they go into the Pac-12, and I don’t know how many people looked at Utah joining Pac-12 and thought, “Wow, wow, the Pac-12 really upgraded now. Now they’re really going to get serious.” I don’t think a lot of people did that. In fact, I think it was the opposite. And to see this team get out of the South and then win the Pac-12 back-to-back years, especially this year with USC being looked at as a playoff team if they won, again, it just says a lot about the program. And think about what they lost from last year, especially the leadership that they lost. So yeah, I love the program. I love Kyle. I love Cam Rising. I’m a fan, have been for a long time.
With Rising specifically, how much has his play pushed things forward? This isn’t exactly a program that’s known for strong quarterback play. They’re not bringing in high four stars and five stars, but they hit gold with this kid. How much have you seen him improve and just push the program forward?
KH: Yeah, it’s funny you say that because just doing a little bit of prep on that game this morning, I saw, I didn’t realize they had averaged 40 points a game and I don’t know how many times in school history that that’s been the case, because they’ve always been the old style of defense running the football and physicality. And I think what you’re bringing up is you wonder how that’s going to affect this program moving forward and the doors that maybe be open for them at that position, because they’ve always had linemen and receivers and defense and running backs, but quarterback’s been more of a game manager with the exception of Alex Smith and maybe a few others. But yeah, I think Cam, his toughness, his style of play, the way he’s played the game, not just the numbers that he put up, definitely would make you think that the future is much brighter at quarterback after what he’s been able to do in Salt Lake.
If you don’t mind going back to Penn State’s last Rose Bowl, a game that you called, and that memorable season as a whole, what do you remember most about that team, about that game, and really specifically about that Saquon run. That seems like it’s replayed time and time again when the Rose Bowl comes up.
KH: I get the years kind of mixed up. I remember, you have to correct me here. Wasn’t that the team that all of a sudden found the vertical pass game? Somewhere near the latter part of the year, they ran Saquon and then Trace (McSorley) started to have some great success downfield to (Mike) Gesicki and (Chris) Godwin, and those guys. Trace had a couple good teams, but that team and that game against Sam Darnold… As a broadcaster of a game, you don’t really pull for teams. You pull for games, and that’s what you pull for was that game. It was exactly what you would hope for is, a close game, lots of points, and the two stars of these teams kind of going back and forth on that stage at the Rose Bowl. So yeah, it was fantastic. And people always ask me, what’s your best game or favorite game you ever called? And it’s so hard. Unless you sat down and thought about it. The first games that come to mind is the Penn State-USC Rose Bowl Game that year. It was just a perfect setting and a game that went down to the wire, but I don’t think I’ll forget that one for a long time.
What impresses you about this version of Penn State? This team that obviously lost to Ohio State, lost to Michigan, but has still put together a 10-2 record after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
KH: Like you, I’ve watched them every week and I’ve been impressed with the young backs. You got a veteran quarterback with a couple young backs. Really good defense. I’m excited for this game because I think it’s a chance for Penn State to maybe show who they really are because they only played two ranked teams and lost in both of those games. Battled with Ohio State and the Michigan game got out of hand, but this is an opportunity on a big stage against a highly ranked team. For Penn State, minus a couple players, still to go out and show that they’re a legitimate top 10 team. So, I think there’s a lot on the table for them. And like I said, if you lose this game, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. But if you win this game, I think it raises some eyebrows about who this team was this year.
Herbie, finish this sentence for me please. Ohio State beats Georgia if…
KH: If they can defend the tight ends. Believe it or not, it’d be easy to say CJ Stroud throws for 400 yards. But I think it’s how do they physically match up? This is a defense that’s wounded after their game against Michigan. Now they got to go up against Stetson and this offensive line, these backs, these tight ends. And I think the tight ends are the key to the Georgia attack. Not only off play action, but they do such a good job of moving them around. Todd Monken is one of the more underrated offensive coordinators. In his scheme, while in this spread era, he could line up, if he wanted, in 10 personnel, all these receivers. But he does this 12 personnel look with his two tight ends. And sometimes Bowers is a receiver, sometimes he’s a tight end, just a difficult matchup for anybody. And I want to see how Ohio State matches up. If they can slow down the tight end play of Washington and Bowers, I think Ohio State could have a chance to win the game.
Are you sure you don’t have a little comebacker against Muschamp?
Did he make any plays that day?
KH: I don’t even remember, man. Was that 100 years ago? I remember when I played in the early ’90s, and I would think back to my dad played, he was a captain in 1960, when I was that age, my dad would talk about playing. I felt like he was talking about 1860, and now I’m that guy. I’m that guy. So, I just remember Georgia being really good and very athletic, and I don’t remember much about Will at all.
Ohio State wore the underdog role pretty well in ’14, ran the table. You understand the balance of power in college football better than anybody. Ohio State has a shot here?
KH: Oh yeah. I think a big part of it is just, where’s their mindset? I don’t know. We’ve done the playoff since ’14. I don’t recall a team that lost the way they lost to their rival at home and then went to the playoff to see how they’ll respond. We’ve had teams lose their last game, Georgia last year, but it wasn’t in the same circumstances. It was a neutral site in a conference championship game. Ohio State loses that game, they miss out on their conference championship, and they’re left answering questions where they’re almost embarrassed. And now they’re in the playoff. So, this is uncharted territory. Yeah. I’m anxious to see their mindset. I’m anxious to see how they handle the adversity of that atmosphere at the Georgia Dome. People say 50/50, I think it’ll probably be more 70/30 would be my guess, favoring Georgia. So how do they handle that, I think. And do they keep their poise? A team that’s wounded like that, and you face adversity, do you fight through it? Do you struggle? So, I think it’s more psychological than it is even the XOs of the game.
So, you’re as curious as anybody as how Ohio State will respond?
KH: 100%. Like I said, how will CJ Stroud respond? How will Jim Knowles respond? How will the Ohio State defense respond? The last time we saw their defense, Edwards was going down the sideline for a couple late runs. If you really study the film the way I have this week and last week, their defense, they gave up five huge plays. Other than that, they played pretty well. But they had those five plays where they gave up a ton of big plays. Will they be that same aggressive in your face man to man, safeties uptight kind of defense against this offense with Georgia’s weapons, or will they be more conservative and try to bend but don’t break, which kind of go against who they’ve been all year. But I don’t know. I’m anxious to see how they respond, like I said, emotionally and schematically, especially on the defensive side.
Just thinking about it’s a hundred years of the Rose Bowl stadium. Penn State played in the first one back in 1923. Just how historic of a moment is it to play in a Rose Bowl and just how much does this bowl game mean to college football?
KH: Well, we’re in kind of an interesting time with the sport in 2023 as we approach that, with the 12-team playoff on the horizon and the Rose Bowl willing to be a part of that. You wonder how that’ll will impact things as far as the history and the tradition, USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten. So, with all that being said, I’ve done a game in almost every stadium in the country and now doing these NFL games, in my perfect world, the Rose Bowl would be the host for the national championship every year. We wouldn’t bid it out and play it all over the place. That would be their new home, their new future, is just you know the national championship every year is in that setting. I don’t know if you can find a better setting for a football game. I don’t know if there’s a better setting in all sports really than Pasadena. So, it’s still, to me, I’m from a different generation, it’s still a big deal, that stadium that day, the San Gabriel Mountains, the sunset, the way it comes down. I just don’t see anything better than that. And the players that decide to play in the game, I think will be rewarded by having a memory for the rest of their life, and hopefully it’s a good one if they play well and win.
Are we seeing Penn State take another step forward in the national conversation? Do you see maybe a transition there?
KH: I feel like they’ve been kind of heading in that direction for the last few years. We were just talking about that Rose Bowl with USC, with Saquon Barkley. I feel like really the last four or five years that this team and this program have been so close, and I know their fan base wants to get over that hump and ultimately win and get into the playoff. I just feel like they’re a program that’s where Michigan was prior to last year, kind of knocking on the door, but not quite getting that signature win to be able to get them into the playoff. But it doesn’t mean they’re way beyond even imagining that. They’re right there. To me, I think there’s stability. I think there’s continuity despite the losses with coordinators and players over the years. I feel like overall James has done a really good job there and I feel like they continue to recruit at a pretty consistent level to give them a chance to be that close. And as we expand to 12, it’s hard to imagine not having Penn State in the playoff as we move forward into this next era of college football.
Who would you give the edge at quarterback to in this game with Stetson Bennett and CJ Stroud? And if you were to take Stetson Bennett and put him on Ohio State’s team and take CJ Stroud and put him on Georgia’s team, how would things change or be the same?
KH: Well, first, I don’t know if in this era of the style of football that teams are playing, it’s a very contrasting style to me, with how Georgia attacks and how Ohio State attacks. Stetson Bennett’s skillset fits perfectly in what they do. I think if people in Ohio State fans haven’t seen him play, he’s not a distributor. He does distribute, but that’s not his only job. His creativity and his shiftiness in the backfield when people get pressure on him, is an incredibly underrated asset of his. And I think in the bigger games, they do a really good job of taking advantage of that athletic ability and ability to throw on the run. Even the Michigan game last year, I think they jumped all over Michigan and a lot of it had to do with, again, the play action game. So, he could not be any more different than the way Ohio State attacks, and what they ask of CJ Stroud.
CJ Stroud is prolific in what he does in their offense, where they want to run, but a lot of it for them is they’re going to spread you out and try to get your defensive backs in space. And if you threw in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, they would have three receivers that are all going to be first round draft picks, and you can’t double all of them. And they love to try to find places to attack where you are not. And I think CJ’s Stroud’s strength now with two years of experience is being able to get a pre-snap read and then not predetermining where to go with the ball, but reacting to what the defense does, whether they go double team on the slot, double team on Marvin Harrison, he finds answers and he finds them quickly. I don’t know if you can give an edge to either guy just because they’re very different, and if you put them on opposite sides, I’m sure the coordinators and play callers would figure out a way to utilize their skillset. But there’s a reason they play where they play because they fit with the schemes that they’re quarterbacking. So big fan of both these guys. And I will say Stetson Bennett, his chip on his shoulder, his kind of… His own fan base doubting him, I think, drives him to a very high level of performance. And ironically, CJ Stroud in this era of social media, from the Oregon game last year to the Michigan game this year, he’s dealt with scrutiny. And I think that’s a driving force behind his success as well. Two guys playing with a chip on their shoulder despite being Heisman finalists, I find kind of interesting.
Can you talk a little bit about what you want to see from Cam Rising at the Rose Bowl Game and kind of what makes him a threat for opposing defenses?
KH: Well, I think what makes him a threat is his competitive spirit and his ability to create when there’s pressure. And I think, go back to the Rose Bowl Game last year, or the Pac-12 Championship game this year, people get to him and yet he’s slippery and he’s able to keep his eyes down field, sometimes scrambles for first down with his legs and other time he just, he’s able to find time and keep his vision down field and find an open receiver. But I would say at 6’2” and 220 lbs., if you were just off the top of my head, competitive spirit and his ability to create are probably the two greatest assets that he has. And if I’m Penn State, I’ve got to somehow affect his rhythm and what he does and force the ball downfield. A lot of his throws, unless he finds a tight end on a seam, a lot of his throws are underneath coverage and then force the defense to try to make tackles on some of these shorter throws. Penn State’s got to try to take away some of the easier throws, and especially with Kincaid out, they’ve got to make him find other receivers downfield. You’ve got to eliminate the Utah tight ends, which is a staple of their offense. Make them throw the ball out on the perimeter. I’m sure that’s what Penn State will try to do, that and try to corral Cam Rising because like I said, his ability to create will be, I think one of Penn State’s biggest challenges.
You’ve mentioned a couple times that Ohio State’s defense is wounded from the Michigan game. I wonder if you could answer the question that you posed. Do you think that they will change in terms of how aggressive they are in this game?
KH: I’d be speculating at this point. I haven’t spoken with Coach Knowles yet until I get down to Atlanta after this game on Thursday night. They have been a certain team most of the year. Now they do a good job of mixing up coverages. Part of the reason I think Jim Knowles is there is Ohio State became very predictable with their defensive structure and scheme playing mostly a one high look, either man free or cover three. Those are pretty much the only two defenses that they ran, so teams were able to scheme them up with that look. And I think what he’s done is he’s brought in the ability now to get into different looks, not just man you up, but play some cover too, some quarters. They have a variety of different packages that he likes to use. I’d be speculating. I still think you don’t play one defense. They’re going to mix up their looks, but if I were defending Georgia, just like we talked about with Utah, you’ve got to have answers for Bowers. You’ve got to have eyes on him. Who do you put on him? Is it Lathan Ransom, who’s got some pretty good ability?
When Ohio State defended Notre Dame in week one, that was a big part of trying to slow down that Notre Dame offense and the big talented tight end that they had. And for the most part, till late in the game, they did a pretty good job. Now you have two tight ends, NFL quality, tight ends. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them be more conservative, play a little bit more shell coverage and try to make Georgia be more patient and then execute in the red zone. Georgia’s been hit or miss in the red zone this year. If you go back and look, there’ve been games when they’re as good as anybody. There’ve been other games where they’ve struggled to execute. So, instead of giving up big hits like they did against Michigan, I would be surprised if they didn’t try to force Georgia into being more patient and make them have to earn their points as opposed to rolling the dice trying to get it to Bennett and hoping, playing man to man and hoping to get to him before he can burn you.