The Columbus Dispatch
Smigh-njigba delivers a performance for the ages
PASADENA, Calif. — One day I'll tell my grandkids, “I covered Jaxon Smith-njigba when nobody else could.”
It's not supposed to look this easy, not at this level of college football. This isn't backyard two-hand touch where you diagram zigzag plays on your shirt and tell the big kid to “just get open” and the fast kid to “run as fast as you can, and I'll throw it.”
This is FBS, where defensive backs end up in the NFL because they cover receivers so closely that they know what mouthwash they use.
This was the Rose Bowl, where Ohio State's opponent was supposed to be more legitimate than Bishop Sycamore . And statistically, Utah was. The Utes came in ranked a respectable 23rd nationally in passing yards allowed (195.3.)
But Smith-njigba embarrasses even decent defenses, with help from quarterback C.J. Stroud, of course. The combo lit up the Utes Saturday like a New Year's Eve sky, with Stroud passing for an OSU and Rose Bowl record 573 yards and a school record-tying six touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 48-45 win.
Not to be outdone, Smith-njigba gained the most receiving yards (347) in any bowl ever. Repeating: Any. Ever.
And not just by a couple of yards, either. His performance topped that of Hawaii's Jason Rivers, who recorded 308 in the 2006 Hawaii Bowl.
Coaches don't typically react when game statistics are rattled off during postgame press conferences, but coach Ryan Day's eyes widened when a reporter pointed out the any/ever part of Smith-njigba's day.
When Stroud and Smith-njigba are old and scarlet and gray, they can debate which of their Rose Bowl performances topped the other. Until then, I'm picking Smith-njigba in a photo finish. Not only did the sophomore wide receiver set the all-time bowl receiving yardage record, but his 347 also set a school record, and his 15 catches also matched an OSU record. More? He became the school's singleseason record holder with 95 receptions and 1,606 yards. For those counting at home, well, that's a lot of records.
“C.J. and Jaxon just have a great connection,” Day said.
Kirk and Spock had a great connection. Ditto Batman and Robin, Butch and Sundance and Han and Chewbacca. But none of those dynamic duos did it in the Rose Bowl. Stroud and Smith-njigba? Now, that is a great connection.
As Chris Olave put it, “That's legendary to do that in the Rose Bowl.”
You remember Olave? Great receiver. Just like Garrett Wilson. But when both of those Buckeyes opted not to play in the Rose Bowl to protect their NFL draft status — Olave practiced with the team all week and even dressed for the game, despite having no intention of playing in it — the onus of peak performance fell on Smith-njigba.
Not that he felt it. “Honestly, I just trust the process, trust that coach is going to put me in the right opportunity and that C.J. is going to put me in the right opportunity,” Smith-njigba said postgame.
Honestly, I don't totally believe him. Smith-njigba is the kind of competitor who welcomes a challenge, and the No. 6 Buckeyes going against the No. 11 Utes was a big old “What you gonna do about it?” for him.
Of course, Day did not want to put too much pressure on JS-N leading up to kickoff, so all week he told his receiver not to attempt to match the combined output of Olave and Wilson in one game. “He didn't listen,” Day said, smiling. Good thing, too, because Ohio State needed every ounce of Smith-njigba's brilliance to make up for a running game that limped to 36 yards by halftime. The Buckeyes finished with 110 yards, but they were not going to beat the Utes on the ground. (They barely beat them with 573 passing.) No, OSU proved again it is a finesse team that lives by the mantra, “If you can't out-punch them at least out-spectacular them up top.” Which they did.
Ohio State also needed its passing game to put up points because its defense was allowing Utah to do the same. The Buckeyes had never allowed 40 or more points in consecutive games until Saturday. Certainly, some heated halftime speeches helped the defense stiffen over the last two quarters. “There were some things (said by players) that I probably can't repeat,” Day revealed.
But this game was won through the air.
And Smith-njigba was the main weapon.
“We leaned on him a lot,” Day said. “At one point I asked him, ‘Are you tired?' He looked at me like, ‘What are you asking me for? Are you crazy? I'm going back out there.' And he played one of the best games probably in the history of the Rose Bowl.”
Not probably. Definitely.
“It's the next man up,” Smith-njigba said of stepping into a starring role without Olave and Wilson. “Those guys led the way, and now we have to take over.”