2022 Rose Bowl (Ohio State vs Utah)
Before I get started, I have a couple of admissions to make. First, I'm in the "NC or bust" camp when it comes to the Buckeyes. Ohio State is historically a top-5 (or top-3) program, and the Buckeyes are in the midst of perhaps their best run ever, so it's not unreasonable to expect the team to compete for a national championship every single year and win a few along the way (more than one a decade, IMHO). So every season that does not result in an NC (with a few exceptions) is necessarily a "failure" to some degree. With that being said, I can deem a season like 2021 a failure overall yet still enjoy individual moments or games along the way and appreciate them for what they are. Last night was one of those games.
My second admission is this: I had Utah winning the game fairly comfortably, something like 38-27, primarily because the Buckeyes were missing four All Americans (Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Nicholas Petit-Frere, and Haskell Garrett) due to opt outs, and several other key players to injury; and also because I believed that Utah (much like Michigan) would be more physical and more motivated than Ohio State. And for the entire first half and much of the second, my prediction looked to be spot on. Then, talent took over and Ohio State made a memorable comeback....
1. What a great game! If you're just a fan of college football and had no rooting interest in either team, then last night's Rose Bowl was probably the Game of the Year for you. And if somehow you missed it, don't worry: this game will be replayed forever as one of the all-time classics of the sport.
After Utah jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead, the Ohio State offense finally got going in the second quarter with 21 points of their own. The only problem was that the Ohio State defense remained stuck in neutral and surrendered three more touchdowns to the Utes, who took a 35-21 lead at halftime.
At that point, I basically counted out Ohio State, figuring that the Utes would find even more motivation in the locker room while the Buckeyes would be considering collectively opting out for the second half. And my suspicion seemed well-founded when C.J. Stroud threw an uncharacteristic interception (one of his only bad reads/throws of the night) in the end zone on the opening drive of the third quarter. Stroud's pick was just the latest in a series of "bad luck" plays that had victimized Ohio State to that point in the game: a fumble by Jaxon Smith-Njigba at the end of a 49-yard reception that could've been a touchdown; a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown by Utah's Britain Covey; a 62-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak by Utah's Cam Rising (that appeared to be a busted play); and a strange series at the end of the half that saw Ohio State go 58 yards in 35 seconds but fail to get either a Hail Mary or a field goal attempt (time outs mean sometime, Mr. Day!).
But then the luck changed. Of course in football as in life, you often make your own luck (or at least contribute to it), and the Buckeye defense manufactured a bit of fortune on the ensuing drive when it forced a punt after a three-and-out. Well, to be completely accurate, the Buckeye defense forced a punt attempt, as the Utah punter had trouble with the snap and was tackled for a huge loss before he could make the kick. After taking over at the Utah 11-yard line, the Buckeye offense needed only two plays to notch their fourth touchdown of the game and cut the Utes' lead to just seven points. The teams then traded field goals, and the third quarter ended with Utah having the 38-31 lead, but Ohio State having the momentum.
And the momentum really swung in the Buckeyes' favor when the Utes got stuffed on a 4th-and-3 play early in the fourth quarter on a great open-field tackle from Ronnie Hickman (who had whiffed on a similar chance earlier in the game). Ohio State then went 7-plays, 71-yards for the tying score (special shout out to walk-on tight end Mitch Rossi, who had a career-long 22-yard reception on that drive, on what looked like a designed play!). After a quick three-and-out from Utah, Ohio State went 85 yards in 9 plays to take its first lead of the game, 45-38.
With just 4:22 left on the clock, all the Buckeye defense needed to do was force one stop and it was likely game over. But no, that was simply too big an ask from a unit that had not been known for its stoutness all season long. Despite playing much better in the second half, the defense quickly reverted to its first half form and surrendered a 6-play, 57-yard touchdown that tied the score (with Utah's back-up QB at the helm, no less), thanks in part to a pair of pass interference penalties.
One good thing about a porous defense is that it gives the offense plenty of time to do its thing, and in this case C.J. Stroud & Company had nearly two minutes left in which to operate. The Buckeye offense had previously engineered touchdown drives of 35 seconds (2 plays; 60 yards) and 15 seconds (1 play; 52 yards), so the question wasn't so much would the Buckeyes be able to score in the final 1:54, but rather would they leave too much time on the clock for Utah to come back and tie or win the game. After a nice 33-yard kick return from Emeka Egbuka, the Buckeyes methodically (for them) drove 56 yards down to the 2-yard line, then Noah Ruggles capped off his All American season with the game-winning 19-yard field goal. Final score: Ohio State 48, Utah 45.
2. Now on to the individual performances, but where to begin? Normally it would be with quarterback C.J. Stroud, and that would be especially true after a record-setting performance from the Buckeye signal caller: 37 of 46 (.804) for 573 yards, 6 touchdowns, an interception, and no sacks. Stroud's 573 yards passing obliterated the Ohio State single-game mark, formerly 499 yards by Dwayne Haskins versus Northwestern in 2018; and his six passing touchdowns tied the team record (held jointly by Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins, J.T. Barrett, Kenny Guiton, and himself). Outside of the one interception (more on that in a bit), Stroud was nearly perfect for the game, and several of his passes were absolutely NFL throws. All season long, Stroud had been vacillating between Freshman and Heisman, but last night's performance was likely the final turning point in Stroud's career, and he should enter the 2022 season as the clear favorite to win Ohio State's eighth Heisman Trophy....
3. Or maybe not. As good as Stroud was last night, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was arguably better (and he, not Stroud, earned the Rose Bowl MVP award). All JSN did was catch 15 passes for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns (30 yards; 50 yards; 52 yards); he also had a 49-yard reception that nearly resulted in another score but instead ended up being a "bad luck" fumble that was recovered in the end zone by Utah (more on that fumble later). JSN's 347 receiving yards was not only a Buckeye record (beating Terry Glenn's 26-year old mark by nearly a century), but also an FBS bowl record and the 5th-best FBS performance of all time. Sure, quarterbacks generally get most of the Heisman love, and the Buckeye offense will be loaded with weapons next season, but Jaxon Smith-Njigba will definitely be in the Heisman discussion.
4. In addition to the single-game records, JSN also set an Ohio State single-season record for receiving yardage with 1,606 yards (besting David Boston's mark of 1,435 yards set in 1998), which is also the Big Ten single season record (topping the 1,545 yards posted by Wisconsin's Lee Evans in 2001). JSN also set the Ohio State single-season record for pass receptions with 95 (breaking Parris Campbell's mark of 90 set during the 2018 season).
5. With Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson sitting out to protect their draft stock (and rightly so, given the possibly serious knee injury that top QB prospect Matt Corral suffered in last night's Sugar Bowl), true freshman Marvin Harrison, Jr. got his first extended minutes at wide receiver, and he made the most of his opportunity. Although Harrison's coming out party (6 receptions, 71 yards, 3 touchdowns) was obviously overshadowed by JSN's historic performance, it certainly bodes well for next season when Harrison will be expected to continue the All American play from the wide receiving corps. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Harrison is already being compared to former Buckeye great Michael Thomas. While that comparison is certainly reasonable, Harrison should easily outperform Thomas (113 receptions, 1,602 yards, 18 touchdowns for his career) given the players' respective offensive systems (pro-style vs read-option) and quarterbacks (C.J. Stroud vs J.T. Barrett). For the year, Harrison made 11 receptions for 139 yards (12.6 average) and 3 touchdowns.
6. Also subbing for Wilson and Olave were true freshman Emeka Egbuka (3 receptions, 46 yards) and sophomore Julian Fleming (5 receptions, 35 yards). In addition, Egbuka had a 75-yard kick return that was called back due to a phantom hold by Fleming. It will be interesting to see which of this pair emerges next season as WR3 next to Smith-Njigba and (presumably) Harrison. My money would be on Egbuka, who has incredible elusiveness, with Fleming (if he sticks around) evolving into more of a red zone/possession receiver.
7. Lost among the great performances and breakout games was TreVeyon Henderson, who quietly had 110 yards from scrimmage (17 rushes, 83 yards; 4 receptions, 27 yards). It's really hard to complain about Ohio State's offensive performance yesterday - and for most of the season - but next year the staff could do a better job of giving Henderson opportunities to make plays in space, as running between the tackles is not really his speciality. Henderson finishes his freshman season with 1,560 yards from scrimmage (183 rushes, 1,248 yards, 6.8 average; 27 receptions, 312 yards, 11.6 average) and 19 total touchdowns (including three of 50+ yards).
8. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert ended his Buckeye career as we all might have imagined, with an underwhelming performance (3 receptions, 25 yards). Despite having been a near 5-star recruit back in 2018, and possessing a near-perfect TE physique (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), Ruckert never really had his breakout game at Ohio State, or even a memorable play (maybe his one-handed TD grab in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game?). Ruckert finishes his Buckeye career with 54 receptions for 615 yards (11.4 average) and 12 touchdowns. I suspect that Ruckert will have a better career in the NFL, especially if he hooks up with a team like the Browns that likes to involve the tight ends in its offense.
9. The offensive line had a typical performance last night - adequate run blocking (20 carries, 110 yards, 5.5 average) and exceptional pass protection (zero sacks allowed and plenty of time and space for Stroud to operate). What was missing from this year's OL was an All American caliber interior lineman. In 2018, J.K. Dobbins was Lydell Ross 2.0 (1,053 yards, 4.6 average, 10 TDs); in 2019, he nearly doubled his production and set the Buckeye's single-season rushing record (2,003 yards, 6.7 average, 21 TDs). In 2019, Trey Sermon was an afterthought in Oklahoma's offense (54 carries, 385 yards); in 2020, he set Ohio State records for single-game rushing yards (331 yards vs Northwestern) and single-season yards per carry (7.5 average). The common denominator? Two-time All American guard Wyatt Davis, who routinely turned opposing defensive lines into train wrecks. If the Buckeyes can find at least one mauler in 2022, then their often anemic rushing attack should be able to adequately compliment a passing game that will likely be the best in all of CFB.
10. Utah entered the Rose Bowl with the #10 total defense in the country, giving up 315.4 yards per game and 4.85 yards per play. Ohio State laid 683 yards, 10.2 per play, on the Utes. The Utes also had one of the better scoring defenses in the country, surrendering just 20.6 points per game; the Buckeyes more than doubled that mark with 48.
11. Circling back to Stroud and JSN for a moment.... Despite their historic performances, each player had a turnover in the end zone that cost the Buckeyes points, and almost cost them the game. Even the best players can make mistakes, sometimes very big mistakes in very big moments. But part of what makes players great is their ability to shrug off the mistakes and quickly get back to greatness. Props to both players for doing just that, and to the Buckeye coaching staff for trusting that their greatest players would continue to make great plays during the greatest games of their respective careers.
12. Now on to the defense.... For a variety of reasons (talent, scheme, coaching, effort, lack of depth), the 2021 Buckeye defense was often bad, as it surrendered 35 points to Oregon, 42 points to Michigan, and 45 points to Utah. But here's the good news: The Buckeye defense doesn't need to get all that much better to become championship caliber, because the Buckeye offense scored 550 points (42.3 per game) on the season (the defense chipped in with 44 points of their own, with six touchdowns and a safety). A lot of the Buckeyes' defensive woes (I think) can be solved with a better overall scheme, although there is an appalling lack of talent (and depth) at linebacker (maybe 2022 signees C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers, and Sonny Styles can provide some immediate help at that position).
13. Speaking of linebackers, the oft-maligned Tommy Eichenberg played a borderline great game last night, with 17 total tackles (11 solos) and a TFL. Although the stats are certainly nice, what was even nicer was seeing Eichenberg play with energy and confidence and anticipation that was generally lacking earlier in the season. I doubt that Eichenberg will ever be accounted among the many Buckeye greats at linebacker (Gradishar, Cousineau, Spielman, Hawk, Laurinaitis, Shazier, etc.), but if can at least evolve into Anthony Schlegel then the 2022 defense should take a huge leap forward. Eichenberg finished the season with 64 tackles (33 solo), 4.5 TFLs, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
14. There is a lot of recency bias against Ohio State's defense, and that is bound to happen what you give up 42 points and 45 points in consecutive games (the first time that's happened to the Buckeyes since 1891). Now I don't want to take a statistic out of context, but Ohio State actually finished 38th in FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 22.8 points per game. Granted, a lot of that apparent success came against Akron and a host of Big Ten bottom feeders, but to say that the 2021 defense was historically bad (as Buckeye Twitter Nation claimed last night) is inaccurate. Let's just say that things aren't as bleak as they seem, and with an infusion of talent next year (both on and off the field) there is hope for the future.
15. Entering the Rose Bowl, Ohio State's kick coverage team had allowed an average of just 15.3 yards per return (long of 26 yards) on 32 total returns, which is simply amazing. Of course, they blew all that goodwill away when they allowed Utah's Britain Covey to house one from 97 yards. With that being said, props to walk-on WR Chris Booker for making the final tackle of the 2021 season on the kick-off following the game-winning field goal.
16. RB/WR/DB/KR Demario McCall has been a Buckeye, at least unofficially, since March 28, 2015, and officially since February 3, 2016. Despite being the #44 overall recruit in his class, McCall never really found his niche at Ohio State (865 yards from scrimmage, 8 total TDs, 7 tackles, PBU). Nearly seven years later, McCall's Ohio State journey finally comes to an end. The journey may have been disappointing, but the end was undoubtedly worth it:
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