Ohio State needed C.J. Stroud to be nearly flawless in order to go toe-to-toe with top-ranked Georgia in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
And he delivered.
Whether it was with his arms or his legs, Stroud turned in what should be remembered as an all-time performance in the program’s rich history. Against one of the top-ranked defenses in the country from the vaunted SEC, he completed 68% of his passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, and he added 34 rushing yards in key moments that sustained drives.
Along the way, he lost his starting tight end in Cade Stover and, arguably, the best receiver in the country in Marvin Harrison Jr., who had already hauled in five passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the game. Still, at every turn, Stroud delivered a moment that moved Ohio State closer to the ultimate prize of playing for a national championship and possibly sending the 2022 Buckeyes to college football immortality.
As has often been the case during Stroud’s run as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, however, his efforts to win a big game were undone by a defense that simply couldn’t do its part to complement the offense. Georgia routinely gashed Ohio State for an average of 8.83 yards per play, and with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Georgia erased a two-touchdown deficit with an 18-point spurt.
Despite the furious Georgia comeback, Stroud appeared poised to set up one final blow to Georgia’s chances of repeating as national champions. After Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV engineered a 72-yard touchdown drive on just five plays to take a 42-41 lead with less than a minute to play, Stroud and the Ohio State offense took the field one last time.
Although he had carved up the Georgia secondary through the air all evening, Stroud nearly delivered the game-defining play on the run with a 27-yard scramble that had Ohio State at the Georgia 31. That Stroud was decisive in tucking the ball and running at that moment, as he did at other points in the game, was indicative of his willingness to lay it all on the line for Ohio State when the team simply had to have it.
Of course, Ohio State went on to lose a yard over the next three plays, relegating Noah Ruggles to attempt a 50-yard field goal to win the game that was well off target. After Bennett took a knee to run off the remaining three seconds, a joyous Georgia sideline spilled on the field while a dejected Stroud — as well as several of his teammates — lingered on their sideline in disbelief of the events that had transpired in front of them.
“The last drive, man, I saw how much time we had with timeouts, and I knew we could do it,” Stroud said after the game. “I tried my hardest to get us down here … I think I left my heart out on that field. Of course, it’s something that’s heavy on the heart. It’s going to be tough, but I’d rather — I don’t want to go out there with anybody else. I love my teammates so much. We put everything on the line, and I would never want to do it with anybody else.”
Stroud added, “I mean, I think, at the end of the day, we had the mindset of we were going to let everything hang. We were going to go out and fight as hard as we can and swing as hard as we can. I felt we did that.”
While Stroud certainly was not alone in delivering performances on Saturday that deserved to pay off in a national championship berth, it would be fair to say nobody deserved the opportunity more than Stroud. With the exception of the coaching staff, there was no player who came under more scrutiny in the aftermath of Ohio State’s second consecutive loss to Michigan than Stroud.
That scrutiny called into question Stroud’s toughness, leadership, and ultimate ability to win at the highest level of college football. Never mind that Stroud had thrown for at least 350 yards and completed at least 64% of his passes in each of his three regular-season losses while watching his defense give up an average of 507 yards in those games.
Sure, Stroud rightfully felt he could have played better in each defeat, but the heavy criticism has never matched Stroud’s output or the unrealistic expectations placed on him to always overcome large deficiencies on the roster.
All those narratives would have been irrelevant conjecture had Ohio State sealed the deal against Georgia and gone on to handle its business against TCU in the national title game. It didn’t, though, and now Stroud’s career in Columbus has come to an end.
Despite the outcome, which he will rightfully say is the only thing that ultimately matters, it was a triumphant ending for Stroud individually, and one that will surely pay dividends leading up to the NFL Draft in April. His performance also solidified his legacy inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center among his coaches and teammates, not that he had anything left to prove inside the building prior to the game.
How Stroud is remembered by the fan base remains to be seen, not that he concerns himself too much with the thought. In what is very much a bottom-line business, some will surely continue to harp on Stroud’s four losses. But for the masses who watched Stroud lay it all on the line to lead his team in a game very few gave it a chance to win, Stroud’s competitive spirit, desire, and raw talent should be difficult to forget.
“What this guy did and the way he competed in the second half with all those things coming at him, I just can’t say enough,” coach Ryan Day said of Stroud in the postgame press conference. “I’m so proud of the way he played. He’s not the only one, but he’s sitting right here, and he’s the quarterback of this team. Just the way he attacked this game, I couldn’t be any prouder of the way he did that.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.