College Football & Soccer Analyst
ATLANTA — CJ Stroud stared into space.
It had been about 30 minutes since Georgia beat Ohio State 42-41 in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl on Saturday, and the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist was still very much in the process of processing.
As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buckeyes kicker Noah Ruggles missed a potential game-winning 50-yard field goal that would have sent his team to the national championship.
Had Ruggles’ kick gone through the uprights, Ohio State would have returned home to Columbus on Sunday to begin game planning for TCU, which upset Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl earlier in the day. They will then head to Los Angeles in a few days to begin preparing for the biggest prize in college football.
Instead, the season is over.
Georgia stuns Ohio State with late rally in Peach Bowl
And so there sat Stroud in his sweaty Ohio State jersey and his band. Desperate and heartbroken, he sat next to Ryan Day and defensive back Zach Harrison, fielding questions about what had just happened.
“I can’t say too much about how we fought,” said Stroud, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, although he was sacked four times.
“We kept swinging, we kept fighting, we kept swinging, we kept fighting. Of course, you’re going to regret some plays, wish you’d done this, wish you’d done that. But at the end of the day, he’s a man in the arena. It’s hard to do what we do. You have to be happy in these moments. Of course I’m not sitting here smiling and happy. Of course you want to win things like that and it means a lot to us. I mean me and Coach Day, man, like we’re early risers every morning on the phone all the time, whatever we can do to win and put smiles on people’s faces. It’s hard.”
Unlike the loss at Michigan, when the Buckeyes’ future was unknown — they didn’t drop to the fourth seed in the playoffs until next week — the aura was different Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The day was oddly upbeat for a coach who just missed a playoff game by such a narrow margin. Stroud spoke with confidence and resilience, offering high praise for his coach and the program he will soon leave behind as he is expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft.
Maybe that’s because Ohio State silenced some of its doubters and answered some pressing questions. Heading into this game, there was a lot of talk about how Ohio State might respond to Georgia five weeks after its second straight upset loss to Michigan. Would they let The Game hover over their preparation? Would they be intimidated? Was the program at a crossroads? Was there legitimacy to the concerns that Day might not be the guy to lead Ohio State to a national championship when the Buckeyes are a national championship or bust program?
After Saturday’s result, any lingering questions can probably be boiled down to this: Is a one-point loss in a CFP semifinal against the reigning national champions enough to change — if not completely erase — the current narrative that Ohio State doesn’t Is it poised to be a perennial power like Georgia and Alabama?
After the loss to Michigan, Ohio State got right back to work — before the Buckeyes even knew they would be playing Georgia. With Stroud as a leader, the players were back in the weight room and getting extra reps together on the field, even before USC’s loss in the Pac-12 championship allowed OSU to fall to the fourth and final playoff spot. Then, in the 35 days between the Michigan and Georgia games, Day said his team took 1,500 reps during bowl practices leading up to that game. They even had an analyst map it out. This dropped to an average of 42 reps per day.
It almost worked. Ohio State came this close to pulling off an upset.
Late in the fourth quarter, Stetson Bennett led Georgia on a five-play, 72-yard drive to take a one-point lead. That left 54 seconds for Stroud to do something. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year made smart plays, including scrambling 27 yards to the UGA 31-yard line and throwing the ball on third down when Georgia went on an all-out blitz, setting up the final field goal attempt in the field.
“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win, though,” Day said. “And I think that’s probably what hurts the most is when you put so much work and so much energy and so much time into something, and you’re there and you just — you don’t get the win.
“This is a performance business, and you win, or you lose, and we lost the game. That just hurts at our core. And that’s it. We’re here to win, and it didn’t happen.”
There was a sense that Day’s position might have been a little warmer after the Michigan game. Stroud was quick to back his coach, praising his game plan and decision-making Saturday, including the first down call after Stroud ran to the 31-yard line on the final drive. Day made a play for Dalan Haden, who was tackled for a 1-yard loss.
Day explained that the idea was that they still had two timeouts and a few yards could go a long way toward scoring. He said he wouldn’t change the call despite not making it, and Stroud quickly chimed in to say, “it was a good call, great call.”
Ohio State also gave up some explosive plays against Georgia, similar to one it allowed against Michigan. There was Kenny McIntosh’s 52-yard run midway through the first half that would have been a touchdown had the running back not tripped on the turf (it still set up a Georgia touchdown two plays later). And there was Bennett’s 76-yard touchdown bomb to Arian Smith in the fourth quarter to make it a three-point game. But Day explained that while limiting big performances like these was something they worked so hard to avoid, they were different this time.
“The difference was in this game it didn’t discourage us,” Day said. “We kept swinging and fighting, and we just kept going.
“But call it what it is. If we’re going to win those games, we can’t give up those big explosive games. It’s tough to come back from those. But there were still a lot of positives out there.”
Ohio State matched Georgia’s energy and physicality and relentless attitude, and for the most part was in complete control. The Buckeyes just caved this time.
“Let’s call it what it is there. They’re the defending national champions, undefeated,” Day said of Georgia. “They’re a good team. But I don’t think there’s a guy in that locker room that doesn’t feel like we shouldn’t have won the game. Again, that’s a part of this that’s going to sit in our stomachs for a long time.” .
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and the Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in the spring of 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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