Two years after Justin Fields had the signature performance of his Ohio State career in a College Football Playoff semifinal game, C.J. Stroud had one of his own in Saturday night’s Peach Bowl against Georgia.
Unlike two years ago, when Fields’ spectacular six-touchdown game led the Buckeyes to a 49-28 win over Clemson, Stroud’s performance against the Bulldogs wasn’t quite enough to propel Ohio State past Georgia. Even in defeat, though, Stroud’s effort deserves to be recognized for what it was: A game in which Stroud proved he’s an elite quarterback and did just about everything he could to give the Buckeyes a chance to win on the game’s biggest stage.
Against one of the best defenses in the country, Stroud was both sharp as a passer and impactful as a runner. He completed 23 of his 34 passing attempts for 348 yards and four touchdowns. Not including sacks, Stroud also ran the ball eight times for 70 yards, proving he was both willing and able to be a weapon with his feet to make the plays his team needed with the season on the line.
In what is expected to be the final game of his Ohio State career before he enters the NFL draft, Stroud drew widespread praise from fans, analysts and his Buckeye teammates and coaches for how well he played.
“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,” Ryan Day said while sitting alongside Stroud during Ohio State’s postgame press conference. “The way he attacked this game, I couldn't be any prouder of the way he did that. We were missing some guys out there, and we were trying to figure it out. On the biggest stage, he played one of his best games, in my opinion.”
Projected to be the first Ohio State quarterback selected in the top 10 picks of an NFL draft since Art Schlichter, Stroud showed why in the Peach Bowl. His first two touchdown passes of the night to Marvin Harrison Jr. were textbook examples of just how dynamic Stroud can be as he used his legs to buy time behind the line of scrimmage while keeping his eyes downfield before delivering accurate downfield strikes for 31- and 16-yard scores.
OHIO STATE STRIKES FIRST— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2023
C.J. Stroud Marvin Harrison Jr. for 6 pic.twitter.com/MsWHE3DM1V
In a battle with a defense that had been dominant for two years, Stroud consistently looked a step ahead of the Bulldogs – particularly through the opening drive of the third quarter, as he had completed 18 of his first 22 passing attempts for 292 yards after completing his fourth touchdown pass of the night to Emeka Egbuka. Stroud – who also excelled with extra time to prepare in last year’s Rose Bowl, in which he set school records with 573 passing yards and six touchdown passes – credited his preparation over the past five weeks with allowing him to excel in Atlanta.
“It was kind of like you knew what was going to happen. When you're playing like that, you're playing free. You're having fun,” Stroud said. “That probably was the most fun game I ever played in my life.”
Stroud wasn’t as efficient passing the ball down the stretch of the game, as he completed only five of his final 12 passes for 56 yards, but it didn’t help that the Buckeyes had to play the entire fourth quarter without their top receiver after Harrison was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Starting tight end Cade Stover and No. 1 running back Miyan Williams had also left the game due to injuries at that point, and with TreVeyon Henderson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Gee Scott Jr. also out, the Buckeyes were forced to turn to players like Joe Royer and Jayden Ballard who had barely played any snaps all season with the first-team offense.
With a depleted group of skill-position players around him, Stroud recognized he needed to do more by himself to give the Buckeyes a chance to win, and that’s exactly what he did. On Ohio State’s final four possessions of the game alone, Stroud ran the ball eight times for 71 yards, driving the Buckeyes into field goal territory three times.
Most notably, Stroud had a 27-yard scramble in the game’s final minute that got the Buckeyes to the 31-yard line with 24 seconds left to play, giving them a real chance to win the game after Georgia scored a go-ahead touchdown with just 54 seconds remaining.
C.J. Stroud, a running quarterback. pic.twitter.com/uiCdDpxdzq— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 1, 2023
That run would be for naught when the Buckeyes failed to gain yardage on their next three plays and Noah Ruggles missed a game-winning 50-yard field goal attempt wide left, but Stroud was able to leave the field knowing he gave his all to try to punch the Buckeyes’ ticket to the national championship game.
“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,” Stroud said. “We were very efficient in the pass game. In the run game, started rolling a little bit, got a lot of positive runs. I felt we were very efficient.
“A couple of those drives where I maybe missed a read or protection broke down and I got sacked, whatever the case may be, maybe those were the reasons why we lost. No one really knows, man. We got to get on the film and see what went on. But I'm proud of my guys. I can't say too much about how we fought. Like it was time and time and time again that we kept swinging, kept fighting, kept swinging, kept fighting.”
Stroud’s teammates were certainly appreciative of how close he came to leading them to victory.
“If he's not the best player in the country right now, then I don't know who is,” Harrison said after the game. “He gave it his all. I saw a lot of things where he can't run or he's not tough enough to run, and I think he showed today that he can do anything he wants on the football field. And he's such a great leader for this team.”
“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.”– Ryan Day on C.J. Stroud
As Stroud’s Ohio State career concludes, his resume won’t include any wins in the CFP or in the rivalry game against Michigan. Those will be factors in the conversation as Ohio State fans debate where he stacks up alongside other all-time great Buckeye quarterbacks like Fields, Troy Smith, Dwayne Haskins and J.T. Barrett.
Statistically, though, Stroud clearly ranks as one of if not the best passer in Ohio State history. He finishes his two-year run as starting quarterback with the best career passer rating (182.4) in both Ohio State and Big Ten history and the most passing yards per game (324.9) in program history. He has the second-best career completion percentage in school history (behind only Haskins) and the second-most passing touchdowns in school history (behind only Barrett) with an exceptional touchdown-interception ratio of 85 to 12. He’s the only Ohio State quarterback ever to be a Heisman Trophy finalist twice.
By proving he could carry Ohio State’s offense to play at an elite level against one of college football’s best defenses in his likely final game as a Buckeye, Stroud left a lasting impression that gave Ohio State fans reason to appreciate just how talented a starting quarterback the Buckeyes had for the past two years.
And even though he and his teammates fell short of achieving their championship aspirations, there’s no question he will leave Columbus having made a major impact on those who played alongside him.
“I'm gonna miss him, personally. This whole team's gonna miss him. He's just such a great player,” Harrison said. “I was blessed to be able to play a whole year with him. I got the chance to start with him this year and seeing him last year, too, at the Rose Bowl. I'm just definitely blessed to play with a quarterback like him and also have a friend, at the end of the day, on and off the field.”