C.J. Stroud could walk out of the Horseshoe Saturday as the quarterback who avenged Ohio State’s first loss to Michigan in 10 years. In the process, he’d all but assure his team a trip to the College Football Playoff and presumably secure his status as the odds-on favorite to be the first Buckeye in 16 years to hoist the Heisman Trophy.
Or, Stroud could become the first Ohio State starter to lose back-to-back games to the Wolverines since Steve Bellisari more than 20 years ago. As a result, the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes would be in peril, and they’d see their chance at a Big Ten championship snuffed out by their archnemesis for the second straight season. As stellar as Stroud’s Ohio State tenure has been, he could leave the program without any Gold Pants, championship hardware or even the chance to play for a title.
And the Heisman Trophy? Forget about it.
Whichever path comes to fruition, Stroud will hardly be solely responsible. Far from it, in fact. But that won’t stop the outcome of Saturday’s rivalry game from playing an inextricable role in how the California native’s college career is remembered.
If that seems like an overwhelming amount of pressure to be placed on one 60-minute game of football, it’s because it is. That’s The Game, and as Ryan Day said Tuesday, “it's been like this for 100 years here.”
One hundred and eighteen, to be exact.
Let’s not forget, Stroud’s performance didn’t cost the Buckeyes a win in last November’s snow-cloaked regular-season finale in Ann Arbor. In his first start in The Game, Stroud threw for 394 yards, tossed two touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over.
Other phases were far more consequential in the loss, even on offense. The Buckeyes ran the ball for just 64 yards on 30 carries, and the Ohio State front line gave up four sacks to Aidan Hutchinson and company. On defense, the Buckeyes couldn’t stop the run, allowing Hassan Haskins to gash them for 169 yards and five touchdowns by himself. As a team, the Wolverines finished with 297 yards and six scores on the ground.
In this year’s matchup, many of those same factors could be potential pitfalls for the scarlet and gray once again. Michigan possesses the fourth-best run game in the country, and even if the health status of star running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards is in question, the Buckeyes are preparing to see the former on Saturday.
Ohio State’s own run game hasn’t been the same since the bye week. Despite bringing in Justin Frye to help reconfigure the Buckeye rush attack over the offseason, Ohio State has hardly been consistent on the ground in the latter half of the season. Much of that has to do with injuries to top rushers TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, who aren’t likely to have a completely clean bill of health even if they manage to suit up against Michigan. As a result, the Buckeyes may have to lean on true freshman Dallan Hayden in the backfield, an unsettling proposition even if Hayden has been excellent over the past two weeks.
The Buckeyes won’t be at full strength up front, either. Starting guard Matt Jones was carted off the field late in Ohio State’s comeback win against Maryland last weekend, which could lead to problems in both pass protection and the run game if he has to be replaced on Saturday. Not to mention Dawand Jones missed Ohio State’s Indiana matchup with injury one week prior, although he has since returned to the fold.
If the retooled Ohio State defense struggles to limit the Wolverine offense and the Buckeyes can’t count on a reliable run threat of their own, the importance of a big day for Stroud will only be underscored.
The Buckeye pass attack hasn’t consistently fired on all cylinders over the past three games either, though, as Ohio State has averaged just 213 yards per game during that stretch and five of Stroud’s six touchdowns across those three contests came in one game alone (Indiana).
Statistically speaking, Stroud and company face the best pass defense they’ve seen all season on Saturday. Michigan ranks fifth in the country with an average of just 161.7 yards per game given up through the air in 2022. But the Wolverines haven’t been threatened by a passing game like Ohio State’s yet. The Buckeyes have racked up big numbers in the pass game in each of the past three rivalry matchups, shredding Michigan for a combined 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, ’19 and ’21. And that productivity came against two different Wolverine defensive coordinators.
Unlike last year, and in the Buckeyes’ dismal 76-yard passing performance against Northwestern a few weeks ago, weather shouldn’t be much of a factor when it comes to Ohio State’s ability to throw the ball. While rain is expected at night, the sun should be shining at kickoff with temperatures projected to reach up to 56 degrees throughout the day.
Stroud isn’t likely to have Jaxon Smith-Njigba at his disposal as a pass-catching weapon, but he still has a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist at wideout in Marvin Harrison Jr., who Jim Harbaugh said this week has “Heisman habits.” Perhaps with a showcase performance, Harrison could help Stroud win the Heisman while stating a case to earn some significant individual hardware of his own.
Stroud’s last trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist wasn’t quite as celebratory as he might have imagined. The redshirt freshman finished in fourth place for the award a year ago, and perhaps the moment he’ll remember most from the ceremony is the laughter at his expense as Hutchinson and Desmond Howard cracked jokes about the Buckeyes live on-air not long after the Wolverine win.
Aidan Hutchinson reminding CJ Stroud at the Heisman ceremony— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 12, 2021
If you heard Stroud’s comments following the Buckeyes’ recent win over Maryland, you’d know those laughs still ring in his ear.
“I'm excited man. Of course, we've been licking our wounds for 365 days, hearing all the laughing and everything that everybody's been saying,” Stroud said in College Park. “So I definitely think that we've been preparing for it, not only on the field but in the weight room as well. So man, we're very excited.”
On Saturday, Stroud has the opportunity to turn that laughter into cheers in Columbus and to put solemn faces on the maize and blue faithful that mocked him.
Stroud isn’t the only Buckeye that stands to win or lose a great deal in just a few hours this weekend. Of course, the same could be said about Day, who is sure to be showered in unflattering Jon Cooper comparisons if he starts his Ohio State head coaching tenure 1-2 against the Wolverines. But as upset as Ohio State fans will be if that scenario unfolds, Day won’t be on the hot seat.
The Buckeye head coach is fresh off of landing a contract extension through 2028, even after dropping to Michigan last season, and would still have two Big Ten titles, two CFP berths and a national championship game appearance under his belt in just four years’ time. Win or lose on Saturday, Day should still get plenty more cracks to beat up on the Buckeyes’ archrival in the future.
For Stroud, though, this is now or never. Barring an earth-shattering surprise, he’ll head to the NFL draft following his third year at Ohio State. By the time Stroud walks across the stage on draft night, he’ll either have a pair of Gold Pants to take with him, or he won’t. That will all depend on what happens Saturday.