Ohio State’s Top 20 Plays of the 2021 Season

By Dan Hope on January 23, 2022 at 8:35 am
Jerron Cage

Ohio State made no shortage of spectacular plays during its 13-game 2021 football season.

As you might expect from a team that led the nation in both points per game (45.7) and yards per game (561.2) per game, Ohio State’s season was full of explosive plays all year long. Most of those came from the Buckeyes’ top-ranked offense, though Ohio State also tied for the national lead with six defensive touchdowns and had some big moments on special teams, as well.

There were so many great plays during the 2021 season that we had to turn what could have been a top-10 list into a top-20 list – and even then, we were forced to make difficult decisions about which plays would and wouldn’t make the cut.

We could have easily made this a top-25 or even a top-30 list, as some of the honorable mention plays that missed the final cut included Ohio State’s longest touchdown of the year (a 77-yard catch by Garrett Wilson against Michigan State), its longest run of the year (a 71-yard touchdown by Miyan Williams at Minnesota), a trio of pick-sixes by Craig Young, Denzel Burke and Ronnie Hickman and all 20 of Noah Ruggles’ field goals.

Alas, we had to stop somewhere, and the following 20 plays stood out as the season’s best. While a ranking of the season’s best plays is purely subjective, we considered the degree of difficulty of each play along with each play’s significance to the season and whether it was a rare or unique play in determining how the plays should be ranked.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so feel free to comment below the article with your own opinions on which plays were the best of the year. We think you’ll all agree, though, that the following 20 plays from the Ohio State season that was are worth watching again.

20. TreVeyon Henderson’s 68-yard run vs. Penn State

Henderson will make several appearances in this countdown for big plays he made during his first season as a Buckeye, but he might not have had a more consequential run than his 68-yard run early in the third quarter against Penn State.

The freshman running back exploded out of the backfield to run by multiple defenders around the line of scrimmage, then beat Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown to the sideline and took off before he was finally tracked down at the 1-yard line. On a day where Ohio State’s offense never got into a consistent groove, that long run – which was Henderson’s longest running play and Ohio State’s second-longest run of the year – set up what would be the Buckeyes’ final touchdown in a 33-24 win.

19. Chris Olave weaves his way to 61-yard touchdown

One area where Olave showed marked improvement in his senior year over the first three years of his illustrious Ohio State career was in making moves in the open field to extend plays after the catch, and his most impressive display came in the Buckeyes’ first game of the season.

After catching a pass on an out route about 20 yards downfield, Olave made a smooth cut away from the sideline to run past a defender and then efficiently and speedily followed his blocks down the field to go all the way for a 61-yard touchdown that iced a win for Ohio State in a competitive season opener against Minnesota.

18. Chris Olave snares deep ball to break Boston’s record

The next two plays on the list are both included, in part, because of the records broken in the process by the Buckeyes who made those plays. Olave made history on this play by scoring the 35th touchdown of his career, breaking David Boston’s previous school record of 34 career touchdown catches.

It came on one of the prettiest touchdown catches of his career, too, as he beat two Michigan State defensive backs deep and caught a long ball from C.J. Stroud near the back of the end zone, securing the ball (one that he would take home as a keepsake after the game) in his hands and getting his feet down in bounds before hitting the white paint for a 43-yard grab.

17. TreVeyon Henderson runs past Archie

There were no shortage of highlight-reel plays from Henderson in Ohio State’s third game of the season against Tulsa, in which he ran for a new freshman-record 270 yards to lead the Buckeyes to a 41-20 win. It was the run on which he broke Archie Griffin’s previous record of 239 yards, though, that might have been his best of the day.

Henderson ran right through the middle of the defense before speeding past multiple tackle attempts in the open field to reach the end zone and score his third touchdown of the day in his first career start.

16. Emeka Egbuka gains 85 yards on first career catch

Even though Egbuka only caught nine passes as a true freshman, he makes two appearances on this countdown, starting with the first catch of his Ohio State career.

Egbuka was responsible for Ohio State’s longest play of the entire season – which also tied the third-longest reception in school history – as he showed his speed and shiftiness by turning a catch about 20 yards downfield into an 85-yard gain, eluding multiple defenders before he was finally taken down inside the 5-yard line.

15. Garrett Wilson turns jet sweep into 51-yard TD

Wilson scored four touchdowns that all could have been a part of this highlight reel in the most prolific game of his Ohio State career on Nov. 13 against Purdue, but the one that makes the cut for this list was the only rushing touchdown of his career.

After coming around to take a jet sweep handoff from Stroud, Wilson made a defender miss about seven yards past the line of scrimmage and let his speed do the rest of the work from there, dusting the rest of the Boilermakers defense for a 51-yard run and his third touchdown before halftime.

14. Marvin Harrison Jr. makes a tackle for a safety

While Harrison had his breakout game as a wide receiver by catching three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl, his first big play as a Buckeye – and the one that makes this list – came on special teams.

As Indiana punter Jared Smolar dropped a snap in the end zone, Harrison took a direct line to the punter and made a perfect form tackle to take Smolar down for a safety – the only two points, excluding field goals and extra points, that the Buckeyes would score on special teams all season, and the first scoring play of Harrison’s career.

13. Garrett Wilson delivers a vicious stiff arm

It’s not every day that you see a wide receiver knock a defender on his butt with a stiff arm, but that’s what Wilson did in Ohio State’s fourth game of the season against Akron.

On another display of Wilson’s ability to make a big play in the open field, he turned a screen pass into a 57-yard gain by accelerating away from a tackle attempt behind the line of scrimmage and jetting all the way into the red zone – burying Akron linebacker Bubba Arslanian into the turf in the process – before he was finally caught from behind.

12. TreVeyon Henderson scores 70-yard TD in debut

If there was any doubt that Henderson would make an immediate impact in his freshman season at Ohio State, he erased it on this play. In his very first game as a Buckeye, Henderson showed the world just how explosive he is by turning a swing pass into a 70-yard touchdown, his longest play of the entire season.

While he didn’t have to do anything overly spectacular to make any defenders miss, as his speed did most of the work for him, the fact that he made this play in his Ohio State debut made it a defining moment of his freshman season and one of the Buckeyes’ most memorable plays of the year.

11. C.J. Stroud threads pass between three defenders

When Stroud puts together his highlight film for NFL talent evaluators before the 2023 NFL draft, this throw will undoubtedly be included. It may have been the best throw of his entire first season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.

Throwing the ball into triple coverage is usually frowned upon, but Stroud made it work against Indiana by delivering an absolute perfect pass to Smith-Njigba for a 32-yard gain, which helped set up one of the Buckeyes’ seven touchdowns in their 54-7 win over the Hoosiers.

10. Emeka Egbuka makes toe-tapping sideline grab

The next two plays on this list both come in the form of over-the-shoulder sideline catches, starting with one made in the final game of the season.

With the Buckeyes trailing Utah 14-0 and needing a spark, Stroud threw a rainbow 30 yards downfield and Egbuka played it perfectly, reaching out into out-of-bounds territory while keeping a foot down in green grass to haul in the pass – Ohio State’s first big play of the game, which would set up its first touchdown and ultimately start the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl comeback.

9. Chris Olave makes over-the-shoulder sideline catch

On a day where he made history by catching the final two touchdown passes of his record-breaking Ohio State career, Olave also made his most acrobatic grab of the season.

Although he came up one yard short of a touchdown on this catch, it was no less impressive of a play as he caught the ball over his outside shoulder just inside the boundary and managed to get one foot down in bounds with firm possession of the ball before his momentum carried him out of bounds for a 27-yard reception that was one of the most impressive of his Buckeye career.

8. Cameron Martinez’ pick-six against Tulsa

Ohio State had four pick-sixes this season – tied for the most in the nation – and all four of them could have been included on this list. But it’s the first pick-six of the year that gets the highest billing on our list.

After making a perfect break in front of a downfield throw for his first career interception, Martinez weaved his way around a multitude of Tulsa players – with plenty of Buckeye teammates helping him out with key blocks along the way – for a 61-yard score that sealed an Ohio State victory in what had been an uncomfortably close game against what was supposed to be an overmatched non-conference opponent.

7. Haskell Garrett’s scoop-and-score at Minnesota

Ohio State had two fumble return touchdowns by defensive tackles during the 2021 season – more to come on that later in the countdown – and the first one came in the season opener at Minnesota, where Garrett scored a defensive touchdown for the second year in a row.

After Zach Harrison skillfully rushed his way around Minnesota left tackle Sam Schlueter to get to Tanner Morgan and swat the ball out of his hand, Garrett was in the right place at the right time to grab the bouncing rock. He then showed off impressive speed for a 300-pounder as he ran away from everyone else on the field and made it 32 yards to the end zone for his second score in scarlet and gray, along with his pick-six against Michigan State in 2020.

6. Garrett Wilson’s leaping touchdown catch in The Game

Although Ohio State’s loss to Michigan is a game that Buckeye fans would surely prefer to forget, Wilson’s touchdown catch in that game – which would wind up being his final touchdown catch as a Buckeye – deserves to be remembered.

In a career that was full of spectacular catches, Wilson made his most impressive catch of his final season at Ohio State when he skied over Vincent Gray to grab the ball through the Michigan cornerback’s hands, then got one foot down in bounds and went over the pylon before going out of bounds for a 25-yard touchdown that gave the Buckeyes their only lead in the 2021 edition of The Game.

5. C.J. Stroud avoids sack, Chris Olave tiptoes sideline

While Stroud didn’t often run the ball himself in his first season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, he did show the mobility to extend plays with his feet and throw on the move, and there was no better example of that than his touchdown connection with Olave at Rutgers.

As a free rusher broke through the line and came directly toward him on 3rd-and-9, Stroud agilely side-stepped the blitz then ran toward the line of scrimmage before tossing an accurate pass to Olave. Then Olave turned what would have been an impressive first-down play in its own right into a much bigger play by maintaining his balance through a tackle attempt on the sideline, keeping himself just barely in bounds before cutting back toward the middle of the field and making another defender miss to stroll into the end zone for a 56-yard score.

4. Jaxon Smith-Njigba makes short pass a 75-yard TD

Out of all the 95 passes Smith-Njigba caught for 1,606 yards in his record-breaking 2021 season, none resulted in a longer gain than his 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Nebraska.

In the game where Smith-Njigba first set Ohio State’s single-game reception record and really started to establish himself as one of college football’s elite wideouts, Smith-Njigba made one of his most impressive plays of the season – though there’s still a couple more to come – as he caught a pass seven yards downfield, juked out a defender in the open field and outran Nebraska’s entire defense (with some blocking help from Olave) to get all the way to paydirt.

3. Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s catch around a defender’s back

Like Wilson’s touchdown catch, this play was ultimately overshadowed by The Game’s final result, but from a degree of difficulty standpoint, it was the most impressive catch Smith-Njigba made all season.

With the Buckeyes needing a big play through the air to move the chains on 3rd-and-19, Smith-Njigba reached all the way around Michigan cornerback DJ Turner’s back to catch the ball with one hand for a 26-yard gain – a play that might rank even higher on this list if Ohio State had been able to pull off a comeback win.

2. Stroud and Smith-Njigba connect for Rose Bowl lead

This play had just about everything. Stroud threw a perfect pass more than 40 yards through the air to the only place he could put it. Smith-Njigba made a difficult catch look easy, hauling the ball in with both hands over his outside shoulder and got both feet down in bounds for good measure. And it gave the Buckeyes their first lead of the entire Rose Bowl, a game they would not have won without that touchdown as they edged out a 48-45 victory.

For all the great plays Stroud and Smith-Njigba made all season and in the Rose Bowl alone, none were better or came with higher stakes than their final touchdown connection of the year.

1. Jerron Cage’s scoop-and-score

While ranking the rest of the plays on this list felt a bit arbitrary, picking the No. 1 play of the season was easy. For all the spectacular plays Ohio State’s offense made in 2021, no play was more memorable than Jerron Cage’s 57-yard scoring romp against Penn State.

The 305-pound nose tackle wouldn’t have been high on anyone’s list of candidates to score a touchdown, especially in a big game against the Nittany Lions, but after Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith forced a fumble, Cage deftly scooped up the loose ball and raced all the way to the end zone for a touchdown.

Cage told reporters the following week that it was so loud inside the Shoe that he couldn’t hear if someone was about to run him down, and he was exhausted – “tired is an understatement” – but he was determined not to let his chance at glory slip away.

“When I got the ball, adrenaline was pumping, and I was like ‘I gotta score,’” said Cage, who said he received more than 700 text messages after his touchdown.

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