For the first 30 minutes of Saturday’s Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, it didn’t look like it was going to be a night to remember for the Ohio State football team.
Ohio State’s defense had been porous for most of the first half, allowing touchdowns on all but two Utah possessions, while the Buckeyes also gave up a kickoff return touchdown. And although the Buckeyes had been moving the ball down the field on offense, they left some scoring opportunities on the table – like when Jaxon Smith-Njigba fumbled away a touchdown at the 6-yard line, and when Julian Fleming was tackled in bounds to run out the clock on the final play of the first half. As a result, Ohio State trailed by 14 points, 35-21, at halftime.
Many of the same problems that plagued the Buckeyes in their previous loss to Michigan sprung up once again – they had allowed Utah to rack up 324 first-half yards of offense, including 166 rushing yards, while Ohio State rushed for just 36 yards before the break – and there was plenty of reason for Ohio State fans to feel like the Buckeyes were headed for a second straight loss to end the season.
The players in the locker room, however, weren’t thinking that way.
“We weren’t going out like that again,” Marvin Harrison Jr. said after the game. “Games in the past, they didn’t really go our way, so we knew this one was not going to go out like that again.”
Had Ohio State continued to struggle in the second half and lost the Rose Bowl, it would have sealed the 2021 season’s fate as Ohio State’s worst season of the last 10 years. The Buckeyes would have both lost three games and failed to reach 11 wins (excluding the 2020 season, when they played only eight games due to the COVID-19 pandemic) for the first time since 2011.
But the Buckeyes outscored Utah 27-10 after halftime, scoring on all of their final five possessions of the game while allowing the Utes to score just one touchdown and one field goal in their final five drives, to finish their season on a high note with a memorable win in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
Ryan Day said Ohio State’s second-half comeback was a testament to the team’s player leadership.
“Our guys at halftime said enough, and they were going to impose their will in the second half,” Day said. “And I think that’s what’s going to build momentum into next year. Because that’s what we need if we want to go want a bunch of championships … I think it says a lot about our kids the way we played in this game.”
Both sides of the ball played a big role in the comeback, as the defense needed to play much better in the second half than it did in the first half to give Ohio State a chance to win. The defense did just that, holding Utah to just 139 yards of offense after halftime. While the defense certainly wasn’t perfect, allowing Utah to drive for a game-tying touchdown with just 1:54 left to play, it was good enough in the second half for the Buckeyes to have a chance to win, and Ohio State safety Bryson Shaw credited that to a change in mindset.
“I think at times, we lacked that kind of dog mentality that all these greats before us talked about, and I think we found it,” Shaw said. “I think it’s a turning point for this program, really for this defense, and I think it just builds a lot of confidence and momentum going into the offseason.”
Of course, Ohio State ultimately won the game because of its prolific offense, as the Buckeyes scored 48 points on a whopping 683 yards, led by C.J. Stroud throwing for a school-record 573 yards and Smith-Njigba catching 15 passes for 347 yards, both school records. After Stroud was picked off in the red zone on the opening drive of the second half, Ohio State scored every time it had the ball for the remainder of the game, allowing the Buckeyes to ultimately even the score on their first possession of the fourth quarter and take the lead on their next possession.
On a day where they didn’t have the benefit of playing with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and where they had to overcome plenty of adversity to lead the Buckeyes to a win, both Stroud and Smith-Njigba stepped up to finish their sophomore seasons with their finest performances yet.
“I think what motivated us wasn't just this game, but the previous game,” Stroud said. “I know that was my motivation, just getting that bad taste out of our team's mouth and ending the season the right way and sending our seniors off the right way. That was probably the most important thing for me.
“Then on top of that, this is the Rose Bowl, man. This is where the legendary games are being played. If you aren't motivated to play, I question your love of the game.”
In a game that Ohio State could have viewed as meaningless after it failed to make the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes could have hung their heads after things started poorly and could have allowed Utah to run away with a win. In the final two quarters of the game, however, the Buckeyes proved just how much it meant to them to come back from Pasadena with a trophy.
Shaw said Demario McCall gave a speech to the team at halftime that motivated the Buckeyes’ second-half comeback – though Shaw, McCall and Day all said after the game that they felt the context of that speech should be kept in the locker room – and Day said McCall wasn’t the only one who stepped up to address the team at a moment where the Buckeyes needed to prove their resilience.
“I heard a bunch of guys speaking up,” Day said. “Usually, I give a talk at halftime. I let those guys go. This is your team and you guys have to respond ... If we want to go win these type of games, playing against really good opponents like Utah, it has to come from within, and it did today in the second half. And I think that was the difference.”
- #6 Ohio State 48, #11 Utah 45
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- • Ohio State Relied on Senior Leadership in Comeback Win
- • C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba Set The Bar For 2022
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