How did Ohio State beat Utah in the Rose Bowl? Scarlet & Gray Matter analysis
Observations on Saturday's Ohio State-Utah game by Joey Kaufman:
The game at hand
• Short-attention span synopsis: An epic Rose Bowl filled with twists and turns. The Buckeyes started off looking lethargic. Utah was motivated, poised to capitalize. Onlookers contemplated the possibility of Ohio State’s first losing streak since 2013. C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba became a history-making duo to save the day. A season that included disappointment down the stretch ends on a positive note.
• Pregame buzz: Far more Utah red than Ohio State scarlet could be spotted in the Arroyo Seco on New Year’s Day, with Utes fans traveling in droves, taking advantage of the day’s drive to Pasadena from Salt Lake City and seeming especially eager to watch their team's first-ever appearance in the "Granddaddy of Them All." It was an atmosphere that was far more hostile to Ohio State than the usual bowl game at a neutral site. Buckeye Nation was outnumbered.
• Spread the wealth?: It remained risky for any gamblers picking the Buckeyes to cover, even though they closed as only four-point favorites over Utah, the smallest point spread of the season. Favored in all 13 games this season, and as a double-digit favorite in 11 of them, Ohio State finished 6-6-1 against the spread.
• Strategically speaking: The Buckeyes were in trouble early in the second quarter. They trailed by a pair of touchdowns. On a third-and-1 at the Utes’ 25-yard line, freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. But needing momentum, Ryan Day kept the offense on the field and let Stroud drop back to pass. The redshirt freshman then lofted a touchdown to Marvin Harrison Jr. for their first score, keeping them within reach.
• How the team sees it: The loss to Michigan stung for weeks. This eases some of the pain.
• How the pollsters will see it: You did enough for a fifth straight top-five finish.
• How Buckeye Nation will see it: That saves face.
Hey, what did Ryan Day say?
• What he said: "For us to respond the way we did at halftime and to come out and play in the second half says a lot about the character of this team to win this game.”
• What it means: "They passed that gut check."
They said it
• Talking heads: ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, on Ohio State's defense: "There's just so much space in the middle of the defense."
• Pregame chatter: Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, had strong words Saturday for players such as Buckeyes Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Nicholas Petit-Frere and Haskell Garrett opting out of bowl games so as to not risk injury. “What’s the difference as a player and saying these games are ‘meaningless?' ” Herbstreit said. "We played in quote-unquote meaningless games. I just don’t understand that if you don’t make it to the playoff, how is it meaningless to play football and compete? Isn’t that what we do as football players, we compete? I think this era of player doesn’t love football.”
Numbers for dummies
93: Combined points for Ohio State and Utah, making for the third-highest scoring Rose Bowl ever.
48: Points scored by the Buckeyes, their highest-scoring total in the famed Jan. 1 game.
683: Total yards of offense for Ohio State, its most in a game over the last two seasons.
573: Passing yards by C.J. Stroud, the second-most ever thrown in any bowl game behind the 576 once thrown decades ago by both BYU's Ty Detmer and Marshall's Byron Leftwich.
80%: Completion percentage by Stroud, the third time in four games he completed at least 80% of his passes.
347: Receiving yards totaled by Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a bowl game record.
1: Sacks allowed by the Buckeyes’ offensive line after giving up four at Michigan.
3.5: Yards per carry average by Tavion Thomas, his lowest mark since becoming Utah’s lead running back in October.
226: Total rushing yards allowed by the Buckeyes, the fourth time this season they allowed 200 or more yards on the ground.
17: Total tackles by linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who was named the defensive player of the game.
A thrilling comeback win in the Rose Bowl is enough to leave Ohio State with a feeling of euphoria entering the offseason, one that’ll likely wash out some of the bad taste from a loss to Michigan and overshadow issues that reemerged on defense in the first half against Utah. But the Buckeyes shouldn’t get too carried away. They host Notre Dame to open next season on Sept. 3.