ATLANTA — CJ Stroud has endured tougher days than this.
After all, this is just a sport. There is life outside the arena. Stroud knows this more than most—a childhood rocked by his father’s incarceration that led to financial struggles in his family and a late-blooming career.
And yet, in this moment, after carving out one of the nation’s best defenses, after setting his team up for a rousing upset, after positioning Ohio State for a trip to the national championship game, his football dream was shattered.
Noah Ruggles’ 50-yard field goal went low and left of the uprights to give the Georgia Bulldogs a 42-41 victory over Stroud and his Buckeyes in Saturday’s Peach Bowl—a frantic finish to one of the most thrilling games CFP in the event’s nine-year history.
If Ruggles’ kick split the uprights, if the Buckeye defense didn’t fold, Stroud would be the MVP. He would be a hero who somehow managed to outrun the defense of coach Kirby Smart and co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp for 348 yards, four touchdowns and several sack scampers.
Instead, he’s on the losing end of one of the most memorable playoff games in college or the NFL, and it will likely be his last outing in the Scarlet and Gray.
Emotional and overwhelmed in his postgame press conference, a red-eyed Stroud stepped in to defend Ohio State coach Ryan Day multiple times, a clear and obvious attempt to quell murmurs about Day’s ability despite his overall record (45 –6).
“We kept swinging, like ours [program’s] culture,” Stroud said. “I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else”
Asked about his successful game against Georgia, Day said, “Everything is a good game when you have good players.”
And then Stroud interrupted.
“I’ll be his guy,” he said. “Wonderful game. Without the right game [calls]you cannot do works.’
Ohio State (11-2) also led 21-7 in the second quarter and 38-24 late in the third quarter. Stroud and Co. they seemed destined to throw off the SEC’s best, positioned perfectly to knock off the defending champs.
And then it all unraveled quickly, with the Buckeyes’ secondary in the most important moments with three major blunders:
- Safety Lathan Ransom twisted and slid while in coverage on Georgia receiver Arian Smith, who then got wide open for a 76-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
- On the next series, Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister couldn’t get close enough to Georgia receiver Kearis Jackson, who split the defensive backs for a 35-yard reception to put the Bulldogs inside the red zone.
- The dagger came on the same drive a few plays later when cornerback Denzel Burke succumbed to an inside drive by Antoine Mitchell. The receiver was left open for the eventual game-winning dart delivered by Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett.
“We gave up some explosive plays again,” Day said. “We did and it was something we spent a lot of time talking about – avoiding the big game. I think the difference was in this game, he didn’t let us down. We kept swinging and fighting and just kept going. But yeah, I mean tell it like it is, you know — if we’re going to win these games, we can’t give up those big explosive plays.”
First-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his unit gave up 14 plays of 15 yards or more, including four plays of at least 35 yards. Georgia had nearly half of its total yards (210) on those four plays, a familiar refrain for the Buckeyes. In four CFP losses, Ohio State’s defense has been its defense. The Buckeyes have lost by 31 points (Clemson in 2016), 29 points (Clemson in ’19) and 52 points (Alabama in ’20) before Saturday night’s 42-point loss.
“Definitely some plays we can run better,” Ohio defensive end Zach Harrison says. “We could be in a better position.”
There were games of significance that cost the Buckeyes. In the second quarter, Mitch Rossi was flagged for an illegal move on a play in which Stroud had a fourth down. Then in the fourth quarter, they appeared to convert a fake punt before Smart called timeout just before the snap. Instead of continuing the plays, both of these plays resulted in a punt. Georgia scored on both of its ensuing possessions.
Defensive mistakes and a crushing loss ruined what could have been, including a trip back home for the Buckeyes’ star quarterback. The title game between Georgia and TCU will be played at SoFi Stadium. Stroud is a native of the Los Angeles area.
He was great against Georgia, slinging the ball deep, firing mid-range darts and using his legs to gain critical yardage. In the closing minutes, Stroud did so without their top target. Marvin Harrison Jr., who had five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns, was ejected from the game in the fourth quarter after taking a hit to the head.
But Stroud again used his legs to put the Buckeyes in position for the game-winning field goal. Down one, with about 30 seconds left, he raced 27 yards on a meandering run with a tackle to the Georgia 31-yard line. Then, in a three-play sequence that will be remembered in Columbus for years, the Buckeyes lost a yard on a first down and Stroud threw incomplete passes on second and third downs.
“I wouldn’t change that call,” Day said when asked about the first down.
Interjected Stroud: “Good call. Great call!”
“There were a lot of plays in the game that you wish you could have had again as coaches and players,” Day said. “But I told the guys I’m proud of the way they fought.”
No one could dispute that assessment with Stroud, who answered his critics on the biggest stage with a performance for the ages.
“I tried to leave it all on the line,” Stroud said. “Games like this, you’re speechless.”