PASADENA, Calif. – C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba put on a passing performance that obliterated a multitude of records during one of the biggest offensive days in Ohio State’s storied history.
The Buckeyes still barely did enough to hold off resilient Utah and its backup quarterback in one spectacular Rose Bowl.
Stroud capped his record-setting offensive day by leading a 56-yard drive ending in Noah Ruggles’ 19-yard field goal with 9 seconds to play, and No. 7 Ohio State beat No. 10 Utah 48-45 on Saturday night in the wild 108th edition of the Rose Bowl.
Stroud passed for a school-record 573 yards and a record-tying six touchdowns for the Buckeyes (11-2), who won the Granddaddy of Them All for the second time in four years while toppling one long-standing offensive record after another. Stroud’s yards passing and touchdowns both are Rose Bowl records, and he finished 3 yards shy of the record for yards passing in any bowl game.
Smith-Njigba set the record for any FBS bowl game with 347 yards receiving while catching a school-record 15 passes and scoring three touchdowns. Marvin Harrison Jr. also caught three TD passes for the Buckeyes, who set a Rose Bowl and school bowl record with 683 total yards.
“It’s emotional for me,” said Stroud, from nearby Rancho Cucamonga. “It’s like I’m dreaming right now. I was able to come home and win the Rose Bowl like this.”
Ohio State still had to rally from 10 points down late in the third quarter to get past the Pac-12 champion Utes (10-4), who got off to an electrifying start in their first school’s first trip to the Rose Bowl. They even stayed competitive after star quarterback Cameron Rising went down with an injury while getting sacked with 9:56 to play.
The Utes had to turn to backup Bryson Barnes, who grew up on a pig farm in central Utah and had never thrown a collegiate pass – but he led the Utes on a tying drive capped by a 15-yard TD pass to Dalton Kincaid with 1:54 left.
Stroud coolly drove the Buckeyes back downfield in the waning seconds, and Ruggles hit his easy field goal. Ohio State kicked off to Britain Covey, who already had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown earlier, but the Buckeyes smothered his cutback as time ran out.
“All we needed was 30 more seconds, if that,” Barnes said. “Get down the field, tie it and head to OT. But we didn’t get enough time. … A lot of dudes are sad, but there’s not a lot to hang our heads on. We’ve been through the lowest of lows and highest of highs, but we made Utah football history today.”
Utah played without three of its top four cornerbacks, even forcing running back Micah Bernard to play defensive back for the first time since high school.
Ohio State trailed 38-31 entering the fourth quarter despite the pyrotechnics of its passing game, but the Buckeyes immediately stopped Utah on downs at the Ohio State 31, and tied it on Harrison’s 5-yard TD catch with 10:12 left. Smith-Njigba then made a 30-yard, over-the-shoulder catch for his third touchdown with 4:22 to play.
“To come out in the second half and play the way we did says a lot about this team,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who earned his second bowl victory. “We were shorthanded, and we found a way to get it done.”
With two top Buckeyes receivers opting out of the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba had a landmark day that included TD receptions of 50 and 52 yards made 30 seconds apart – albeit with Covey’s TD return in between.
He broke Cris Carter’s 1985 school record of 172 yards receiving in a bowl game in the first half alone. He snapped Keyshawn Johnson’s 1996 Rose Bowl record of 216 yards receiving and then Terry Glenn’s 1995 single-game school record of 253 yards after halftime. Smith-Njigba finished the season with 1,606 yards, blowing past David Boston’s 1998 school record.
“I just try to take advantage every time the ball is in the air, and I feel like I did that today,” Smith-Njigba said.
Yet the Buckeyes were playing from behind for most of the day in Arroyo Seco. Rising passed for 214 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 92 yards and a score while leading the Utes to a 35-21 halftime lead, but he left the game with an apparent head injury.
In front of a raucous crowd dominated by Utah fans in the venerable stadium that opened in October 1922, the schools matched the 2012 Oregon-Wisconsin matchup for the highest-scoring first half in Rose Bowl history, combining for 42 points and 443 yards in the second quarter alone.
The 24-year-old Covey’s sensational 97-yard romp through the Buckeyes in the second quarter was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Utah’s bowl history. Covey, who also caught a 19-yard TD pass for the Utes’ first points, arrived at the school in 2015.
With the anticlimactic nature of this Rose Bowl for the Buckeyes, whose loss to Michigan in November knocked them out of the national title picture, four key starters opted out to preserve their health for the NFL draft – receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, starting left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett.