Ryan Day was right there with Ohio State’s fans – shocked, disappointed and maybe disgusted – when he walked off the field at halftime of the Rose Bowl on Saturday night with the Buckeyes trailing Utah 35-21.
“Thirty-five points in the first half is ridiculous,” Day said about the five touchdowns OSU had already given up to Utah as he stopped for his obligatory interview with an ESPN sideline reporter on his way to the locker room.
Two quarters later, after Ohio State had pulled out a 48-45 win, his outlook had taken a definite turn for the better.
He was talking how that win built momentum and alluded to the fact that it allowed the Buckeyes to avoid the negativity that might have hovered over the off-season if this season had ended in back-to-back losses.
“We really responded in the second half,” Day said. “I think it’s huge.”
But the win, like the defense’s first-half performance, had a bit of the ridiculous in it, too. But it was a good kind of ridiculous. Ridiculous, as in quarterback C.J. Stroud (37 of 46 for 573 yards and 6 touchdowns) and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (15 catches, 347 yards and three touchdowns) playing ridiculously well.
Ohio State came into the game without seven starters, including four who chose not to play because of wanting to avoid injuries that might harm their NFL draft position.
Two of those players were the Buckeyes’ top two receivers, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. But Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr. (three touchdown catches), Julian Fleming (5 catches) and Emeka Egbuka (3 catches) rose to the occasion.
Stroud’s 573 yards broke Ohio State’s record for most passing yards in a game. Smith-Njigba broke OSU records for most passes caught in a season, most receiving yards in a game, most receiving yards in a season and tied the record for most catches in a game. His 347 yards against Utah is also a major college bowl record.
“He played probably one of the greatest games in the history of the Rose Bowl. He and C.J.have a great connection,” Day said about Smith-Njigba. “There is a lot of trust there that has been built over the year. They read each other really well and they have a special connection.”
But the comeback wouldn’t have happened if Ohio State’s defense had not made a drastic improvement in the second half.
Like the offense, it was missing some key players going into the game and lost two more in the first half when defensive back Lathan Ransom was carted off the field with a leg injury and defensive end Jack Sawyer was called for targeting and ejected.
After giving up 35 points and 324 yards of total offense in the first half, it held Utah to 10 points and 139 yards in the second half.
“We were down a bunch of guys, down some numbers. At halftime there were a bunch of guys in that locker room who stepped up in a big way. I think as we spring board into the off season I think that’s what we’re really going to look back on is the leadership. We weren’t going to be denied,” Day said.