Cade Stover came up small in the biggest game of the year.
The Buckeye captain and starting tight end has been maligned for his performance against Michigan since the end of the regular season, and the criticism isn’t unfounded. In terms of Pro Football Focus grade, Stover had his worst game of the year in Ohio State’s 45-23 rivalry loss on Nov. 26. Despite holding a season grade of 69.4, PFF graded out Stover’s performance against the Wolverines at a 49.
And you hardly needed analytics to tell you Stover had an off day.
But Stover alluded to a possible explanation for that uncharacteristic performance on Monday. When asked if injuries factored into his effort in The Game, Stover didn’t deny it, but said he won’t reveal exactly how limited he was against Michigan.
“Everybody is banged up at the end of the season. Whether how much it affected me or not, I'll never admit it because that's just the way it is,” Stover said on a Zoom call with media members in Atlanta. “You can't be like that. You're playing football. You signed up to get beat up, so you'd better play beat up.”
Stover did not appear on Ohio State’s official status report before The Game, and actually received his most snaps of the season against the Wolverines (76). Stover was on the field for all but two of the Buckeyes’ offensive snaps in the contest.
Ohio State didn’t shy away from targeting Stover in that game, either. On a crucial fourth-and-short conversion attempt in the second quarter, the Buckeyes turned the ball over on downs as C.J. Stroud’s pass hit the outstretched fingertips of his top tight end. And that wasn’t Plan B; it was Stroud’s first read on a play that appeared to be drawn up for Stover.
Later, Stover failed to come up with a red zone target that would’ve resulted in a much-needed touchdown for the Buckeyes, and another pass tipped off his hands late in the fourth quarter as Michigan closed the show with an interception. After catching 31 passes for 386 yards and five touchdowns in the first 11 games, Stover had four receptions for just 13 yards and no scores against Michigan.
Stover’s blocking also left something to be desired, with one blown assignment helping Michigan stop a would-be first-down pickup on the ground on a third-down rush by Chip Traynaum in the third quarter.
While Stover didn’t say anything concrete about his injury situation, he did say the past several weeks have been beneficial for the Buckeyes to lick their wounds. With 35 days between games, Stover and company have had plenty of time to nurse nagging affiliations, even if TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba have already been ruled out of the Peach Bowl due to the severity of their health issues.
“Last couple weeks have been nice, though, to kind of get your feet back underneath you here, and hopefully we'll come into this game healthy,” Stover said.
Once Ohio State and Georgia kick off at 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Stover won’t be thinking about Michigan anymore. In fact, he put that behind him a while back in order to go all in on preparation for the country’s No. 1 team and the defending national champs.
“All our focus is on Georgia right now,” Stover said. “I mean, that one stings, yes, but right now we're focusing on winning this game right now, and we're not worried about that.”
If Ohio State is going to knock off the Bulldogs in their own backyard this weekend, Ryan Day needs that kind of refocused resolve from players like Stover. The Buckeye head coach will depend on standout efforts from his veteran leaders on Saturday, and as a fourth-year performer, team captain and starter, Stover fits that bill.
“When you get into the CFP, certainly there's just a certain level that we have to make sure we're preparing for. I think our guys have been doing that, and they're working hard, and the leadership is going to have to play really well in this game,” Day said Monday. “Our older guys, our veteran guys are going to have to lead the way because we know in big games like this veterans have to play veteran.”