College football and soccer analyst
ATLANTA — CJ Stroud stared into space.
About 30 minutes had passed since Georgia defeated Ohio State 42-41 in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Peach Bowl on Saturday, and the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist was still very much in the process of processing.
As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buckeyes kicker Noah Ruggles missed a potentially game-winning field goal from 50 yards that would have sent his team to the national championship.
Had Ruggles’ kick gone through the uprights, Ohio State would return home to Columbus on Sunday to begin game planning for TCU, which upset Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl earlier in the day. Then they would head to Los Angeles in a few days to start preparing for college football’s biggest prize.
Instead, the season is over.
Georgia stuns Ohio State with late rally at Peach Bowl
And so Stroud sat in his sweaty Ohio State jersey and headband. He was dejected and heartbroken, sitting alongside Ryan Day and defensive lineman Zach Harrison, answering questions about what had just happened.
“I can’t say too much about how we fought,” said Stroud, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns without any interceptions, despite being sacked four times.
“We kept swinging, fighting, swinging, fighting. Of course you’re going to have regrets on some games, I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that. But at the end of the day account, he’s a man in the arena. It’s hard to do what we do. You have to be cheerful in those moments. Of course, I’m not sitting here smiling and happy. Of course, you want to win. things like that and it means a lot to us I mean me and Coach Day man like we wake up early every morning on the phone all the time whatever we can do to win and put smiles on the people’s faces. It’s difficult.
Unlike after Michigan’s loss, when the Buckeyes’ future was unknown — they didn’t reach fourth in the playoffs until the following week — the aura was different on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Day was oddly optimistic for a coach who just lost a playoff game by such a narrow margin. Stroud spoke with confidence and resilience, praising his head coach and the program he will soon leave behind as he is expected to be a top pick in the NFL Draft.
That may be because Ohio State silenced some of its skeptics and answered some pressing questions. Leading up to this game, there was a lot of talk about how Ohio State might respond to Georgia five weeks after their second straight demoralizing loss to Michigan. Would they let The Game hover over their preparation? Would they be intimidated? Was the program at a crossroads? Was it legitimate to fear that Day wouldn’t be the guy to lead Ohio State to a national championship when the Buckeyes are a national championship or bust type program?
After Saturday’s result, any lingering questions can probably be boiled down to this: is a one-point loss in a CFP semi-final to the reigning domestic champions enough to alter – if not completely erase – the narrative? that the state of Ohio is not set up to be a perennial powerhouse like Georgia and Alabama?
After losing to Michigan, Ohio State immediately got back to work — before the Buckeyes even knew they would be playing Georgia. With Stroud as the leader, the players were back in the weight room and mustering extra reps on the field, even before USC’s loss in the Pac-12 championship allowed OSU to slip. in the fourth and final playoff spot. Then, in the 35 days between Michigan and Georgia games, Day said his team did 1,500 reps in their bowl practices in preparation for this game. They even had an analyst to trace it. That boiled down to an average of 42 reps per day.
It almost paid off. Ohio State came so close to pulling off the upset.
Late in the fourth quarter, Stetson Bennett led Georgia on a five-play, 72-yard drive to take a one-point lead. They gave Stroud 54 seconds to do something. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year made smart plays, like the 27-yard rush to UGA’s 31-yard line, and got the ball rolling on third down when Georgia threw an all-out blitz, setting up the last field goal attempt.
“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win,” Day said. “And I think that’s probably what hurts the most is when you put so much work and so much energy and so much time into something, and you’re just there and you don’t not get the victory.
“It’s a performance business, and you win, or you lose, and we lost the game. That’s just what hurts our hearts. And that’s what it is. We’re here to win, and it didn’t happen.”
There was a feeling Day’s seat may have felt a little warmer after the Michigan game. Stroud was quick to defend his coach, praising his game plan and decision-making on Saturday, including the first call after Stroud ran to the 31-yard line on the final drive. Day called a run play for Dallan Hayden, who was tackled for a 1-yard loss.
Day explained that the idea was that they had two more timeouts, and a few yards could have helped the basket. He said he wouldn’t have changed the call even if he hadn’t performed, and Stroud quickly jumped in to say, “That was a good call, a great call.”
Ohio State also waived some blowout plays against Georgia, similar to some it allowed against Michigan. There was Kenny McIntosh’s 52-yard run down the middle in the first half that would have been a touchdown had the running back not tripped on the turf (he still set up a Georgia touchdown two games later). And there was Bennett’s 76-yard touchdown bomb against Arian Smith in the fourth quarter to make it a three-point game. But Day explained that while limiting big plays like those was something they had worked so hard to avoid, they were different this time around.
“The difference is that in this game it didn’t get us down,” Day said. “We kept swinging and fighting, and we kept going.
“But call it what it is. If we want to win those games, we can’t give up those big, explosive plays. It’s hard to come back to that. But there was still a lot of positives there.”
Ohio State matched Georgia’s energy, physique and relentless attitude, and for the most part, he was totally in control. The Buckeyes were unsuccessful this time.
“Let’s call it what it is over there. They are defending, undefeated national champions,” Day said of Georgia. “They’re a good team. But I don’t think there’s a single guy in that dressing room who doesn’t feel like we shouldn’t have won the game. Again, that’s some of this thing that’s going to sit in our stomachs for a long time.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman”, released in the spring of 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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