Beware, Buckeye fans. The following exercise isn’t for the faint of heart.
In fact, you may find an examination of the twists, turns, close calls and bad breaks that swung the result of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal rather maddening. But someone’s got to do it.
Of course, a contest of any kind can’t get much closer than a one-point margin separating the winner and loser. The kick that would’ve won the game for Ohio State in the final seconds, though, wasn’t especially close. The 50-yard try from Noah Ruggles veered far left of the goal post at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the Buckeyes’ fate was sealed. But given that Ruggles hit a 48-yard field goal earlier in the night, Ohio State may only have needed a few more yards to set Ruggles up for a more feasible kick.
After a 27-yard C.J. Stroud scramble put Ohio State at the Georgia 31-yard line with 24 seconds to go, it looked like the Buckeyes might have just won the game. But only at the edge of Ruggles’ range, Ohio State failed to gain another inch before the kick. In fact, the Buckeyes actually lost a yard on a run up the middle with Dallan Hayden on the next play after Stroud’s run, a call that Ryan Day received criticism for after the fact.
Day said there were plays he wished he had back in the Peach Bowl, but that wasn’t one of them.
“Two timeouts left adding that into the field goal. If we didn't have two timeouts left, they were going zero,” Day said. “If you split one, you could come out the back end there. Two timeouts left, any couple yards right there could add to the field goal, and that was the idea. Didn't quite execute it as well as we would like to, but I wouldn't change that call.”
Stroud supported Day’s decision when asked about the play call, stepping in to label it a “great call” at the end of his head coach’s response.
Still, Donovan Jackson said when the offense walked off the field for the final time, he knew it needed to do more to put Ruggles in a better position.
“I would say like I had all the faith in the guys on this team, but obviously if you're five yards out you'd rather be one yard out. So it was definitely in the back of my head I was like, 'Man, I wish we were a little closer,’” Jackson said. “But I had all the faith in all the guys on the team, the special teams unit. So it just didn't go our way but, it doesn't deter the fact that we worked hard that game.”
That was hardly the first close call, though. There were a litany of sequences before then that contributed to Ohio State’s ultimate demise, which saw the Buckeyes go from up two touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter to behind by one point as the celebration started in Atlanta.
The Buckeyes took a 21-7 lead with 10:56 to play in the second quarter as Marvin Harrison Jr. hauled in his second touchdown pass from Stroud. The Ohio State passing game was humming. But back came the Bulldogs, who scored two straight touchdowns in less than five minutes of game time to tie things up. Momentum had flipped, and Ohio State needed to take some back.
To that end, Day elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 35-yard line after a Buckeye drive quickly stalled out. Ohio State picked it up on an eight-yard run by Stroud, who moved the chains to give the Buckeyes a chance to answer Georgia’s run.
Not so fast.
A flag immediately followed the play as Mitch Rossi was whistled for an illegal motion penalty, and with the Buckeyes backed up to their own 30 as a result, Day had no choice but to punt. Georgia then kicked a field goal to take its first lead of the game just seven plays later.
But that play wasn’t as consequential as the sequence that followed.
Ohio State rattled off the next 17 points in a row to take a 14-point lead at the end of the third quarter, but the Buckeyes might have made it 21 if not for a booth review that overturned a targeting call on Georgia’s Javon Bullard in the back of the end zone. Not only did Ohio State not get a fresh set of downs with the ball on the Bulldogs’ doorstep, but it also lost Harrison for the rest of the contest as a concussion from the collision caused the training staff to shut him down.
The Buckeyes came away with four fewer points than they would’ve liked on that possession, and without Harrison – who already had 106 yards and two scores to that point – the passing offense only managed 29 yards the rest of the way.
“To say that losing Marv didn't have an impact on the game, it absolutely did,” Day said. “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. I'm so proud of the way he played.”
On the ensuing possession, another tough decision from the officiating crew kept a Georgia scoring drive alive. On 4th-and-6 from the Buckeye 13 on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, Brock Bowers was ruled just short of the chains. Ohio State would’ve taken over on downs with 12:10 to play.
Upon further inspection, officials determined Bowers picked up enough yardage to move the sticks. Ohio State still held Georgia out of the end zone, but a field goal got the ball rolling for the Bulldogs’ fourth-quarter comeback.
Barely over a minute came off the clock before the next major moment took place. Ohio State went three-and-out and lined up to punt the ball back to the Bulldogs from its own 34. But the Buckeyes faked out the Bulldog defense, executing the fake punt it failed to against Michigan, and Mitch Rossi picked up a first down on a direct snap from Mason Arnold.
Not so fast, once again.
Referees waved the play off, as Kirby Smart called a timeout just a split second before the ball was snapped, and the Bulldogs adjusted their alignment to account for the potential of a fake. Day didn’t try it again.
Georgia added insult to injury just 10 seconds later. The Bulldogs needed just one play after the punt to score a 76-yard touchdown, and a two-point conversion put them down only three points, 38-35, with 8:41 to play. It’s not just that Georgia executed well to create the explosive score. Lathan Ransom simply fell over in one-on-one coverage on Arian Smith, and without any help behind it, it was a track race to the end zone.
Smith may have beaten Ransom anyway, but had the Buckeye safety not slipped, perhaps we’d be talking about a different result in the Peach Bowl.
“I thought our team came out and swung and played hard in this game, came up short. It came down to one play. It wasn't just the last play,” Day said. “There were a lot of plays in the game that you wish you had back as coaches and players. That's what happens in a game like this. But I told the guys I'm proud of the way they played. I'm proud of the way they competed. For the older guys, the seniors, proud of what they've done for the program. For the younger guys, the guys that are coming back, it's an opportunity to learn and grow and see what it takes to win in the CFP.”
The what-ifs are endless, and there’s no real good to come out of reliving them if you’re a Buckeye fan. But with a wound this fresh, it’s hard not to stare at it in awe if you’re not going to ignore it completely.