Ohio State beat Utah 48-45 thanks to some record breaking performances in one of the best Rose Bowl games of all-time. After enduring a physical drubbing by their rivals from up north, the first two series of the Rose Bowl made it feel like we were on the verge of another disappointing Ohio State performance. Then C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba got in sync, leading to an explosive offensive performance unlike anything we’ve literally ever seen.
With the offense chasing two scores, all the Buckeyes needed was for the defense to make a few stops. Utah’s physical run game, mix of screens, and the quarterback run all gave Ohio State’s patchwork defense a lot of problems; and giving up 35 first half points proved that this was in fact the exact same group that we’ve seen all year. While they did turn things around — to an extent in the second half — the defense struggled to tackle and got pushed around by Utah leading to some big gains. The defense continued to lack consistency, but they did do enough to get the win.
Today we’re going to focus on the amazing performances that closed out the year on offense, and we’re going to look at some of the defensive plays that I hope I never have to witness again.
The Buckeyes got off to a slow start on their two first offensive possessions, some of which can probably be attributed to nerves, but this has been a common theme this season. The difference was that from there, Ohio State attacked the Utah defense without remorse the remainder of the game.
Throwing for almost 600 yards, rushing for over 100 yards, and having a receiver break two single game records is quite the offensive performance. So, we’re going to look at some of the most electric moments of the game, before we have to have a rough conversation.
The first play that we’re going to look at is the one that got the Buckeyes on the board and really kickstarted the day for the whole team. After the alluded two atrocious first drives, Ohio State got the ball and began the second quarter down 14-0, needing to find some life.
In the play below, we see the Buckeyes lined up in a trips formation with three receivers to the left on the field side. Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 11) is the inside slot receiver, Marvin Harrison Jr. (No. 18) is the middle slot receiver, and Julian Fleming (No. 4) is the outside receiver meaning there were a lot of recruiting stars to one side. The play concept is “Smash” with a slot fade instead of a traditional corner route.
Harrison Jr. wins against press-man coverage and with the fade being from the slot, this gives him a lot of room to work and Stroud delivers a perfect strike over the outside shoulder. This play was textbook and the start of a lot more to come.
The next play that we’re going to look at is an extremely well-designed run-pass option (RPO) that was called in the perfect situation. Utah was playing this game with a running back playing a corner, while still getting carries and catches for the offense. So by aligning in 12-personnel, Ohio State forces Utah’s corner out onto an island with Smith-Njigba.
The run action here is a standard inside zone-read, the offensive line blocks as if it is a run play, indicating that this is in fact an actual RPO, and not just a pass play designed to look like one.
Stroud identifies that he has solo coverage over Smith-Njigba, so where he was going to go with the football was decided pre-snap. The run-fake does enough to confuse Utah’s Micah Bernard (the running back moonlighting as a corner), and Stroud drops an egg softly into JSN’s basket.
Smith-Njigba turns this from a good play into a great one by out running the Ute defense, stiff arming the defender, and scoring an explosive play to pull the Buckeyes within one score.
After the game, we learned that Stroud has a nickname for Harrison Jr.: “Route Man Marv,” which is pretty much the theme on this next play. After the inconsistency that the buckeyes have experienced in the red zone this year, this was a sight for sore eyes.
We already know that Utah was shorthanded at corner (not that OSU can talk, they started a tight end at linebacker), but what was most surprising is that they didn’t really do much to help him out.
Ohio State receivers took advantage of Bernard in coverage all day and none more so than on this play. This is a “Flood” concept from doubles, the routes across the board are a post from Harrison Jr. (No. 18), an over-route from Smith-Njigba (No. 11), a quick out from Jeremy Ruckert (No. 88), and a fade from Julian Fleming (No. 4).
Harrison Jr. has one-on-one coverage against a non-defensive player, and he gets an easy release and uses his route stem to set up the defender. Once he breaks off of his route, the ball is already in the air with a perfect throw from Stroud for the touchdown.
The last offensive play that we’re going to look at is the one that should have been the dagger in the game. An unbelievable effort from both the quarterback and receiver to go up 45-38 with a few minutes left on the clock leaving Ryan Day swearing in disbelief.
Once again, Ohio State uses the “Smash Fade” concept, so no need to go into those details again. Stroud reads through all of his progressions on this play coming back to his third read — Smith-Njigba’s slot fade.
When a quarterback is playing at a high level, his head is moving so much it is noticeable to the television viewer. Stroud’s eyes tell the story as he goes through each progression, then quickly makes the decision to throw to JSN. to cap it off, the record-breaking receiver who makes an exceptional over the shoulder grab, which is why we had to give it to you from two different angles.
There is not much more to be said about the defense under Kerry Coombs and the already departed Matt Barnes, but this article would be doing a disservice if we did not look at the failures that plagued this defensive regime.
Ohio State was physically moved out of the way throughout the first half, and the effort was excruciatingly painful to watch. We’re going to take a look at the issues that stemmed once again for the Buckeyes.
In the first play that we’re going to look at, we are going to see one of the most embarrassing defensive efforts I’ve ever seen. Professionalism be damned here, this one is hard to watch and should never be on any football field let alone one with Ohio State players.
This play is a “Quarterback Power” all the way, after a quick fake, Utah’s quarterback Cameron Rising stumbles. However, he is able to follow his lead blockers through the gap, and this is where it gets bad.
The first thing wrong here, is that linebacker Teradja Mitchell (No. 3) is lined up directly where they are running the ball, but the slight fake is enough for him to chase the down block taking him out of the play.
Then, safety Bryson Shaw (No. 17) over pursues and gets blocked by two people, linebacker Steele Chambers (No. 22) takes on a block eliminating him from the play, and Utah’s QB runs through Mitchell’s arm tackle.
There is zero reason Cade Stover (No. 16) — who has been a linebacker for all of 23:29 of game time — should be the closest defender to making a tackle here. Utah scores a long touchdown and this play embodies everything that has been wrong with Ohio State’s defense this season.
The next play looks frustratingly familiar, and if you go back to the Oregon or Michigan games, you’ll see things extremely similar throughout. Utah is inside the 10 and on the left hashmark, which is important because this has happened all year.
Utah runs a counter with the guard and H-back pulling to the short side of the field. The left side of Utah’s line downblocks and we see Stover (No. 16), Zach Harrison (No. 9) and Mitchell (No. 3) get washed down inside.
Safety/linebacker/bullet Kourt Williams (No. 2) gets kicked out by the pulling guard (No. 78) opening up a wide open hole. The tight end runs through and defensive back Cam Martinez (No. 10) fills weakly, leading to Utah scoring an easy, untouched touchdown.
This is the same type of play that has plagued the Buckeyes in short yardage all season.
Ohio State has consistently failed to get pressure this season against good offensive lines, and this was the case once again. However, when the Buckeyes needed a play they did find pressure and were able to get to Rising for the only sack of the game. This hit also knocked the Utah QB out for the duration of the contest.
Utah went with 12-personnel on this play and dialed up max protection to try to take a deep shot. In this scenario, max protection is keeping both tight ends in to assist in pass protection, this can be used when teams think that an opposing team is about to bring a lot of pressure.
Ohio State rushes four and Jaylahn “J.T.” Tuimoloau (No. 44) is able to get some initial pressure. After Williams (No. 2) and Chambers (No. 22) realize that they have no coverage responsibility, they become pseudo spies on Rising who is a run threat.
After the initial rush forces Utah’s quarterback to retreat, Williams attacks and is able to secure the sack with a violent hit. We cut this play short because the end result is hard to watch, but this was the pressure that the Buckeyes had been missing for most of the game, but desperately needed here.
After Rising went down, they had to bring in their back up quarterback — Bryson Barnes — a walk-on from rural Utah where he used to show pigs growing up, thanks for the info Chris Fowler.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Ohio State’s defense had allowed only three points in the second half, but that was more than enough time for them to blow one more huge play.
All year, safety Ronnie Hickman (No. 14) has been one of the brightest spots on OSU’s defense, but being young, at times he has struggled in coverage. Hickman has Utah’s tight end (No. 86) in man coverage and the TE aligns in the slot creating a size mismatch for the Utes.
They run a slot fade to him and Hickman gives him a free pass around him. Utah’s quarterback looked at his first read and had what he wanted, completing the pass for an easy touchdown.
This play perfectly exemplifies the issues that Ohio State’s defense has had this year from poor fundamentals, a lack of consistent effort, and probably a lazy play-call given the circumstances.
Ohio State rushed four and a lot of players were standing around doing nothing, which is what this defense has essentially provided all season.
In a key moment of the game, Ohio State found an unlikely hero on 2nd-and-6. This was a game of redemption for the offense, and in an expanded tight end role, Mitch Rossi (No. 34) not only held his own as a blocker, but as a receiver as well.
Spider-2 Y-Banana is a pro-style offense staple, popularized by Jon Gruden, and that is the call here. In the words of now unemployed coach, “Always throw to the banana,” which in this case goes to fullback Mitch Rossi.
After getting the first down Rossi was thinking much, much more. He makes a defender miss and turns a quick out into a big play for the Buckeyes with one of the most legendary first down celebrations of all-time.
Lost in the exceptional effort of Smith-Njigba, were the under the radar catches that his running mates at receiver made. To highlight them, Emeka Egbuka was an elite returner, Julian Fleming made some incredible catches, and Marvin Harrison Jr. had three touchdowns.
In this play, I want to highlight the underrated aspect that isn’t always noticed. In this Smith-Njigba touchdown, after he makes the catch, he makes a man miss. You see Fleming (No. 4) hustle up the field and take out the only defender who had an angle on Smith-Njigba.
The extra effort is what makes you appreciate this receiver unit that much more than you already do thanks to their talent. This is a testament to the standard set in that room and to the types of players that Brian Hartline brings in.
Ohio State did not win pretty on Saturday and for most of the game there was probably a lot of doubt in the minds of the Buckeye faithful. As we saw, the defense has a long way to go and although against undermanned opponents they were able to improve, it took a galactic effort from the offense to pull out the win in Pasadena.
Offensively we saw the electricity that we’ve become accustomed to, but in the absence of two all-time great receivers, we saw a new hero rise in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. C.J. Stroud took more steps into his “villain origin story” with an air attack that would make any of Batman’s villains jealous.
Going into 2022 there should be a ton of excitement, but did you notice that we barely talked about one important aspect of the Ohio State team? The run game was just okay in the Rose Bowl, and we are certainly going to need to see more from that aspect next year.
Defensively, is there anymore to say besides, “I can’t wait for Jim Knowles to takeover,”? In the first half, Ohio State’s defense showed the lack of effort and energy that has plagued them all year. They were pushed around for three and a half quarters, but to give credit where it’s due, they did enough to secure a win.
For now, that is it for my football film review because there a no more games, but I’m extremely grateful to all of you who took this journey of learning with me this season. Now begins a fun — and probably very eventful — offseason.