Ohio State's pre-bowl break was longer than normal this year, and we felt every minute of it.
But the Buckeyes and Utes gave us all the excitement we missed and then some in Saturday’s Rose Bowl, as Ohio State pulled out a 48-45 win in all-time classic contest that featured lead changes, broken records and more than a few momentum shifts.
This past week also saw plenty of bowl action, most important of which being Friday's College Football Playoff semifinals, and we've parsed it all to bring you the final stock report of this season.
At this point, there are no new words left to describe the star sophomore wideout’s awe-inspiring Rose Bowl effort. Smith-Njigba put the nation on notice with his 347-yard performance against Utah, in which he caught 15 passes, three touchdowns and smashed a seemingly endless string of records along the way. Smith-Njigba just might have been the best Ohio State wide receiver in a room with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams all along, but perhaps nobody quite realized the extent of his potential until Saturday.
After what we saw against the Utes, and frankly the entire season in retrospect, one would imagine the Biletnikoff Award voters will have a hard time overlooking the Texas native if all goes well next year.
JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA FOR THE LEAD!!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2022
THIS MAN CAN'T BE STOPPED pic.twitter.com/AgDWhFSas6
C.J. Stroud’s 2022 Heisman campaign
The Buckeye quarterback was rubbed the wrong way by his fourth-place finish for the Heisman Trophy this season, and made that plain in the week before the Rose Bowl. Stroud can rest easy knowing that if he puts on a series of performances resembling his record-setting Saturday outing during the 2022 season, he’ll likely be difficult to deny more serious consideration for the honor in his second year as a starter.
Stroud’s 573 passing yards shattered Dwayne Haskins’ previous single-game Buckeye record of 499, and the California native finished with single-digit incompletions despite throwing the ball 46 times in the contest. It only speaks to how historically great Smith-Njigba’s performance was Saturday that Stroud’s own masterpiece has been slightly overshadowed.
Marvin Harrison Jr.
Smith-Njigba was not the only Buckeye wideout who hauled in a trio of touchdowns against Utah. In the first start of his career, Harrison lived up to all the lofty expectations that have been leveled in his direction, catching six passes for 71 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-tying score early in the fourth quarter. Harrison took full advantage of the opportunity created by Wilson and Olave’s absence, and the impressive showing could springboard him into an excellent sophomore campaign next fall.
MARVIN HARRISON JR. HAT TRICK— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 2, 2022
- 5 REC
- 55 YDS
- 3 TD
*He's just a Freshman*
Ohio State ties things up, 38-38 pic.twitter.com/7QNYpP0cpG
Offense to linebacker pipeline
It looks like Cade Stover’s future is likely at linebacker – again. Recruited as such out of high school, the Mansfield, Ohio, native played tight end all season before transitioning back to defense for the Rose Bowl, and he made an impact right off the bat. Things didn't always go according to plan for the Buckeye defense, but Stover finished with six tackles and appears to have potential as an outside linebacker – or perhaps a Leo – in Jim Knowles’ defense.
Between Stover, Steele Chambers and new Arizona State transfer DeaMonte Trayanum, it seems the Buckeyes have no problem plucking players from offensive positions and molding them into linebackers as they see fit.
Cade Stover says he thinks the move to LB might be a permanent one. pic.twitter.com/wdnqS9RBwv— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) January 2, 2022
It surprised many when Eichenberg began the season as a starting linebacker for the Buckeyes, and the Cleveland native took quite a bit of heat from the fan base as Ohio State’s defense struggled early in 2021. Eichenberg eventually lost that starting distinction, but with an injury to Cody Simon ahead of the Rose Bowl, he capitalized on his opportunity in a major way.
Eichenberg led all defenders with 17 total tackles, eight more than any other Buckeye, and earned the contest’s defensive MVP honor in the process. Eichenberg actually broke Ohio State’s previous high mark for tackles in a Rose Bowl, tallying two more than Chris Spielman’s 15 in 1985.
Ohio State defense
The Buckeyes tightened up considerably in the second half against Utah, but Ohio State’s defensive performance in the first half of the Rose Bowl alone was enough to lower its stock. The Buckeyes gave up 35 points to the Utes before halftime, 14 in the first quarter and 21 in the second, and stopped them from scoring a touchdown on just two of their six first-half drives. Utah racked up 324 yards in total on the Buckeyes in the first half, with nearly equal productivity on the ground and through the air, and the adjustments Ohio State made in the wake of its Michigan loss did not seem to be paying dividends.
The Buckeyes gave up 42 and 45 points in their final two games of the year, but luckily for fed-up fans, Jim Knowles will start fresh with the defense this week as the group’s new coordinator.
The Wolverines prided themselves on playing a physical brand of football; running the ball and wreaking havoc on the line of scrimmage defensively to knock off the Buckeyes and win a Big Ten championship this season. But Jim Harbaugh and company ran into a Georgia team that does all of those things a heck of a lot better than Michigan on Friday, and the result was a 34-11 game that was even less competitive than the final score indicated.
The Wolverines’ breakthrough season was halted in its tracks in their first-ever CFP appearance, and Michigan’s otherwise impressive campaign came to a screeching conclusion without much of a fight.
After suffering a 24-10 defeat at the hands of Arkansas in Saturday’s Outback Bowl, Penn State’s 2021 season did not turn out to be the spirited turnaround the program hoped it would be following a 4-5 2020. James Franklin and company went 7-6 this year with a 2-6 record in their final eight games, and are now just .500 in the two seasons since 2019’s 11-2 campaign.
Exciting CFP games
Is a competitive playoff game too much to ask for? There haven’t been many in recent years, and Friday’s matchups both lacked much in the way of parity or excitement. Bama rolled Cincinnati, albeit not spectacularly, and Georgia had little trouble dealing with Michigan in a 23-point blowout. Hopefully an all-SEC rematch for the national championship is a bit more fun, but we’ll be content to rewatch the Rose Bowl for the next week (if not much, much longer) in the meantime.