PASADENA, Calif. -- Ohio State rallied from 14 points down to beat Utah 48-45 in the 108th Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes were on the ropes in the first half, but they rode their young quarterback and a hot receiver to their 11th victory of the season.
Here are five things to know about the game:
1. C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were unstoppable.
The Buckeyes needed a record-breaking day from their redshirt freshman quarterback, and he delivered with a school-record 573 yards passing and six touchdowns.
His top target was Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a sophomore who caught 15 passes for an Ohio State single-game record 347 yards.
With the defense struggling in the first half, they threw haymakers back at Utah, including touchdowns of 50 and 52 yards in the second quarter when Ohio State was just trying to stay in the game.
“I thought C.J. and he just have a great connection,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “They have a great feel, and I think there’s a lot of trust there that’s been built over the year.”
2. Ohio State’s defense struggled in the first half but was solid in the second.
The Buckeyes gave up 35 points (including a kickoff return for a touchdown) and 324 total yards in the first half, but Utah managed just 10 points and 139 yards in the second.
The vaunted Utah running game was good, but perhaps not as efficient as it needed to be.
Quarterback Cameron Rising ran for 92 yards while Dunbar grad Tavion Thomas added 67 yards on 18 carries at running back. They combined with five others to pile up 226 yards on the ground, but their rushing success rate was only 37 percent and they averaged 3.6 yards per carry on first down.
“I thought in the second half they made up their mind on defense that they were going to play different,” Day said of his defense. “It happened in the locker room. I heard it, and I got out of the way. Then they played with a different toughness, and we talked about playing fast and violent. I thought they played that way in the second half. When you make up your mind you’re going to do something like that, then you can impose your will. I felt like that’s what happened.”
3. The Buckeyes countered by taking advantage of a depleted Utah secondary.
Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III had a big game against the team to which he was once verbally committed, but the rest of the Utes struggled to keep up with Ohio State’s receivers.
Third-string running back Micah Bernard led Utah with 10 tackles at cornerback, but he was also burned for multiple big plays.
“We felt he was our best option at corner,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We had three of our top four corners down. That’s no excuse because you’ve got to play with who you’ve got healthy.
“Micah, he gave us everything he had, and we appreciate his coverage for making that change. He hadn’t played defensive back since high school, and to be willing to do that for us, I’m proud of him, very proud.”
4. The kids were all right for Ohio State.
Ohio State didn’t have its top two receivers as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson opted not to play, but Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka picked up the slack with a combined 14 catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns.
“I have respect for their defense, but when my guys are rolling, I think we’re pretty much unstoppable,” Stroud said.
“We’ve got to go out there and prove it, you know what I’m saying? Marv had a great game. He showed you all a little glimpse. He has way more in his bag. Julian, I know he popped his little shoulder out, but he has way more in his bag as well. I know they’ll hit their peak next year.”
On the other side of the ball, sophomore Tommy Eichenberg had 17 tackles while redshirt freshmen defensive backs Kourt Williams and Cameron Martinez added six and five, respectively, for a defense that was missing several players because of injuries.
5. Noah Ruggles was the unlikely hero.
The efforts of Stroud and Smith-Njigba might have meant nothing if not for the kicker who transferred from North Carolina in the offseason. His 19-yard field goal with 12 seconds left provided the game-winning points in a contest that featured over 1,000 total yards.
That was something he said he could not have imagined this time a year ago when he was in the transfer portal and unsure he would find a new team.
“It’s mind-blowing for me, and it’s all God,” Ruggles said. “I was in the (transfer) portal last year and I was grinding every day and I didn’t know what for. I didn’t have a team to work for, and now I’ve got this team. I love this team, and I love to come through for them.”
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