Let’s be clear: No matter who was on the field for Ohio State by the end of the Peach Bowl, the Buckeyes still had enough talent to punch a ticket to the national championship – even if they didn’t do so.
The scarlet and gray could’ve, if not should’ve, got the job done in Atlanta against the reigning national champs in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. And perhaps they would’ve had Ohio State received the benefit of an extra bounce or two down the stretch.
One such circumstance was the overturned targeting call on a hit that ended Marvin Harrison Jr.’s breakout sophomore season. It may have effectively ended Ohio State’s season as well.
I know, I know; coulda, woulda, shoulda.
While Harrison’s concussion had the most consequential and direct impact on the result of the Peach Bowl as far as the Buckeyes were concerned, he was far from the only potentially game-changing contributor Ohio State was lacking on offense as it attempted to win the game on its final drive.
Most importantly, C.J. Stroud was intact, and so were his five best offensive linemen to protect him. However, the supporting cast of skill position players was far different than the unit anyone would’ve expected before the season to be on the field in the most crucial series of the year.
Did anyone have true freshman Dallan Hayden starting in a CFP game on their preseason Buckeye bingo board? How about Xavier Johnson playing nearly the entire fourth quarter and Jayden Ballard getting reps in the final minutes with a chance for a national championship on the line?
That’s no knock on any of those players. Hayden only received double-digit carries in four games this season, but his 553 rushing yards were only 18 fewer than TreVeyon Henderson, whose six rushing touchdowns were only one more than Hayden had in 2022. Johnson made multiple huge plays for the Buckeyes this season. His second-half touchdown against Notre Dame might have been the X-factor in the season opener (pun intended), and he even spun his way to a highlight-reel 37-yard touchdown grab in the Peach Bowl.
It’s just that few would’ve envisioned them as first-teamers on the CFP stage, at least not this season.
During Ohio State’s 35-day hiatus between games, Ryan Day said he expected the Buckeyes to get back to “full strength” health-wise – a proclamation that perked the ears of hopeful fans who wanted to see Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba at full force for Ohio State’s playoff run. That didn’t happen. Shortly after Day said a Smith-Njigba update was coming down the pipe, the record-setting Buckeye wideout opted out of the CFP due to injury and declared for the NFL draft. The following week, Henderson was ruled out for the rest of the season and told the Columbus Dispatch the foot injury that plagued him throughout much of the year would require surgery.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the field watching his teammates warm up in Atlanta pic.twitter.com/iGDDPkNQFj— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) December 31, 2022
Still, there was hope Miyan Williams would be good as new after several injury issues slowed his roll considerably in the final seven games of the regular season. When healthy, he looked like the best back on the Buckeye roster, particularly in a 189-yard, five-touchdown performance in which he tied Ohio State’s single-game rushing touchdowns record against Rutgers in Week 5.
One week later, he was sidelined with an injury. Williams then left two of the next four games with ailments, missed Ohio State’s Nov. 19 matchup with Maryland and played only a reduced role against Michigan, totaling eight carries for 34 yards. But he told media members in mid-December that he’d be back to full health for the Peach Bowl.
At the start of game week, Kevin Wilson even said Williams took on his heaviest workload in recent memory at the Buckeyes’ previous practice. But Williams, slated to appear during interviews that day, was absent due to a “stomach bug” and missed practice the following day.
By the end of the week, Day said Williams would be “good to go” for the bowl game. He didn’t get the start, though, and despite punching in a touchdown in the second quarter, he carried the ball only three times for eight yards in the ballgame.
Afterward, Williams told media members he was still dealing with some ill effects of both his sickness and physical injury entering the game, explaining his low usage rate.
Already down WR1, WR2, RB1 and essentially RB2, Stroud and the Buckeye offense didn’t even have their top tight end at their disposal by the end of the game. In fact, they didn’t have Cade Stover available after the first quarter, as he suffered an injury hurdling a defender that exacerbated the back spasms with which he entered the game.
Ohio State's Cade Stover appeared to suffer a lower-back injury and was taken to a local hospital. @sportsiren with more pic.twitter.com/LT7sJdlCOH— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2023
Gee Scott Jr. was injured ahead of time, which meant Mitch Rossi played a career-high 47 snaps, Joe Royer – who had only logged seven snaps in the regular season – played 28 snaps and redshirt freshman Sam Hart even got on the field for a tight end rep.
All that and Ohio State still might have been just a few yards shy of a trip to the national championship game. A 50-yard field goal was right on the edge of Noah Ruggles’ range, but he had already nailed a 48-yarder earlier in the same game.
It’s not a stretch to think the Buckeyes would’ve made one extra play on that all-important CFP drive had its full complement of stars been available, or perhaps even one or two more of them. But this is football, after all, and it’s not as though Georgia had a clean bill of health either by that point.
Wondering won’t rewrite history for Ohio State, but the thought of what could’ve been is sure to haunt the minds of Buckeye coaches, personnel and fans for years to come.