The Columbus Dispatch

GRAND FINALE

Wild Rose Bowl win over Utah buoys Buckeyes

- Bill Rabinowitz

PASADENA, Calif. -- In the first half of Ohio State's stunning 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah, the Buckeyes looked the way many of their fans feared they would.

Their championsh­ip dreams dashed in Ann Arbor a month ago, the Buckeyes faced repeated questions about their motivation and toughness.

A game against Utah seemed almost like a no-win propositio­n. Ohio State was short-handed by injuries and opt-outs from four star players, including receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. The Utes were thrilled to be in their first Rose Bowl. Their fans swarmed to California.

Having twice routed an Oregon team that beat the Buckeyes in September, Utah believed it could bully

Ohio State the way Michigan had.

For most of the first half, the Utes did. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides. Ohio State’s tackling was shoddy. At one point, Utah had more points (14) than Ohio State had yards gained (11).

It wasn’t until Ohio State got a first down on, of all things, a C.J. Stroud 10yard scramble, that the Buckeyes showed any life. Yet even when the Buckeyes’ vaunted passing game got untracked, Utah answered every Ohio State score with a counterpun­ch.

After two quarters, Utah led 35-21. It felt more lopsided.

The turning point came at halftime. That’s when the Buckeyes’ senior leaders pleaded with their teammates to summon their pride.

“The coaches were not in there,” senior tackle Thayer Munford said. “We had a team talk. Demario Mccall, Jeremy Ruckert, every senior playing his last game. We said we can’t go out like this. We can’t. We’ve got to keep fighting. Our motto is ‘Fight.’ If you don’t fight, your motto means nothing.”

To Ohio State coach Ryan Day, it harkened back to the 2019 Big Ten championsh­ip game when underdog Wisconsin took a 21-7 halftime lead before OSU rallied. That Buckeye team was a juggernaut.

The 2021 team wasn’t. Its flaws were obvious.

But its strength, the passing game, was ridiculous­ly potent. Stroud’s first pass to Jaxon Smith-njigba was broken up. He targeted the sophomore 15 more times the rest of the game, knowing that with Olave and Wilson not playing the Utah secondary would be keying on Smith-njigba. Stroud and Smith-njigba connected on all 15, including three touchdowns.

The biggest was a gorgeous 30-yarder on which Smith-njigba made an over-the-shoulder catch to give Ohio State its first lead, 45-38.

After Utah tied it with under 2 minutes left, Smith-njigba caught two more passes to help set up Noah Ruggles’ game-winning 19-yard field goal. Smithnjigb­a finished with 347 receiving yards, a record for any bowl.

The victory doesn’t erase the sting of the loss to Michigan. That can’t be salved until November.

But it does give Ohio State a muchneeded emotional boost heading into

next season.

“I think it’s huge,” Day said. Referring to the halftime talk that sparked the comeback, Day said, “When you have that type of leadership from within, that’s when you can do whatever you want. As we springboar­d into this offseason, that’s the part we’re really going to go back upon in this game — the leadership that drove us in the second half that we weren’t going to be denied.”

Day said he was already thinking ahead to next year’s opener against Notre Dame, and the momentum the Rose Bowl win can build for that showdown.

That game is eight months away, and the Buckeyes have much work to do. Jim Knowles now takes over as defensive coordinato­r. Matt Barnes, who took over as defensive play-caller from coordinato­r Kerry Coombs early in the year, has reportedly accepted the coordinato­r job at Memphis.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson, rumored to be mulling retirement, told The Dispatch after the game, “I won’t go anywhere.”

The futures of linebacker­s coach Al Washington and Coombs haven’t been announced.

The defense stiffened in the second half after the disastrous first half, but much work remains to be done with that unit.

The best news is that Stroud and Smith-njigba return, along with most of the offensive line and running back Treveyon Henderson. Marvin Harrison Jr. had three touchdown catches in his first career start, and Emeka Egbuka is a budding star as well.

If the Buckeyes had lost to Utah, the final two games would have cast a cloud on the offseason. Now Ohio State enters it feeling good about itself.

“We have a lot of work to do in the offseason,” Day said, “but we found out a little bit about our team in the second half here.”

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at brabinowit­z@dispatch.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.

OHIO STATE 48, UTAH 45 Ohio St. 0 21 10 17 — 48 Utah 14 21 3 7 — 45

First Quarter - UTAH: Covey 19 pass from Rising (Redding kick), 9:29. UTAH: Bernard 12 pass from Rising (Redding kick), 3:28.

Second Quarter - OSU: M.harrison 25 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 14:17. UTAH: Thomas 6 run (Redding kick), 9:07. OSU: Smith-njigba 50 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 8:32. UTAH: Covey 97 kickoff return (Redding kick), 8:17. OSU: Smith-njigba 52 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 8:02. UTAH: Rising 62 run (Redding kick), 6:24.

Third Quarter - OSU: M.harrison 8 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 11:20. UTAH: FG Redding 24, 7:10. OSU: FG Ruggles 31, 2:53.

Fourth Quarter - OSU: M.harrison 5 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 10:12. OSU: Smith-njigba 30 pass from Stroud (Ruggles kick), 4:22. UTAH: Kincaid 15 pass from Barnes (Redding kick), 1:54. OSU: FG Ruggles 19, :09.

A: 87,842.

OSU UTAH

First downs: 28 25

Total Net yds: 683 463

Rushes-yds: 20-110 44-226

Passing yds: 573 237

Punt Returns: 0-0 0-0

Kick Returns: 8-178 8-222

Intercepti­ons: 0-0 1-0

Cmp-att-int: 37-47-1 19-24-0

Sacked-yds: 0-0 1-7

Punts-avg: 2-41.0 3-38.0

Fumbles-lost: 1-1 2-1

Penalties-yds: 7-70 5-50

Time of Pos.: 25:10 34:12

RUSHING: Ohio St., Henderson 17-83, M.williams 2-17, Stroud 1-10. Utah, Rising 11-92, Thomas 18-67, Bernard 3-31, Pledger 7-23, Barnes 1-10, Covey 2-10, Kuithe 1-7, M.williams 1-(minus 14).

PASSING: Ohio St., Stroud 37-46-1-573, (Team) 0-1-0-0. Utah, Rising 17-22-0-214, Barnes 2-2-0-23.

RECEIVING: Ohio St., Smith-njigba 15-347, M.harrison 6-71, Fleming 5-35, Henderson 4-27, Egbuka 3-46, Ruckert 3-25, Rossi 1-22. Utah, Kuithe 6-77, Kincaid 3-45, Covey 3-34, Vele 2-33, Fotheringh­am 2-19, Bernard 2-15, Enis 1-14.

 ?? JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH ?? Ohio State quarterbac­k C.J. Stroud celebrates after a touchdown on Saturday. Stroud threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns.
JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH Ohio State quarterbac­k C.J. Stroud celebrates after a touchdown on Saturday. Stroud threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns.
 ?? JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH ?? Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-njigba fends off Utah cornerback Kenzel Lawler as he races to the end zone.
JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-njigba fends off Utah cornerback Kenzel Lawler as he races to the end zone.
 ?? ADAM CAIRNS/COLUMBUS DISPATCH ?? Ohio State quarterbac­k C.J. Stroud gets a hug from coach Ryan Day following their 48-45 win over Utah in the Rose Bowl. Stroud threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns.
ADAM CAIRNS/COLUMBUS DISPATCH Ohio State quarterbac­k C.J. Stroud gets a hug from coach Ryan Day following their 48-45 win over Utah in the Rose Bowl. Stroud threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns.

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