Thursday in Minneapolis was a night full of firsts for the Buckeyes. For redshirt freshman starting quarterback CJ Stroud, almost everything was a first.
Stroud came into this game with zero career passing attempts, and through one half of play, you could tell.
He completed 8-of-14 passes for 58 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception. There were times when he appeared to be rushed and other times he just simply missed his receivers. But it was his first ever start and it was on the road in the Big Ten and it was at night and, oh yeah, it was in the rain.
None of those descriptors is a benefit to a quarterback, but Stroud eventually shook it off.
“First-game jitters,” Stroud said after the win.
“In the game of football you have your ups and downs. Everything doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to. I felt in the first half that my mind wasn’t right. I was kind of all over the place a little bit. So I talked to my teammates and I prayed a lot, just trying to lock back in. I don’t feel like I did terrible, but I definitely didn’t do as best as I could.”
In the second half, Stroud completed 5-of-8 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns. Almost everything he did worked, thanks in large part to talented playmakers like Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and TreVeyon Henderson. Those three were responsible for the four second-half touchdowns and they each made plays for their quarterback.
This Ohio State offense is talented enough to go far with a “game manager” at quarterback, but that’s not who Stroud is and it’s not who anybody in the Buckeye program wants him to be. Yes, he got the ball to his playmakers in the second half, but he did it with touch and precision, which allowed them to pick up big gains after the catch.
“I have great teammates, but I think I’m a great player too. Maybe the first half didn’t show that, but I know I did my best in the second, and I feel like I did really good in the second,” Stroud said. “Like I said, in the game of football you have ups and downs, and they believed in me. They put me in a situation to get them the ball and that’s a big opportunity for me. That’s a big task and I feel like I did that.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day knew this wasn’t going to be an easy night out and he prepared the entire team for that. He especially prepared his quarterback. And when Stroud had his first-half struggles, Day reminded him that things weren’t going to be easy and that no matter what, they were going to keep after it.
“Yeah, well, you don’t just walk out at Ohio State at quarterback and throw three or four touchdown passes and call it a day in this conference,” Day said after the game, smiling at the awakening his quarterback had undergone. “Minnesota is a very good team. That’s a very well coached, hard-playing team. Going on the road, it’s not easy in this conference to get wins. It doesn’t just happen.
“For him, there was a lot of things he was doing for the first time. When that happens, it takes some time. Now, you’ve got to give him a lot of credit, there were a lot of times where things were going well. He missed some passes. But he fought through it. He and I had a conversation early on that we’re going to keep swinging no matter what happens. We’re not going to play it close to the vest. That’s not the way we do it here. And he responded.”
The fight almost went the distance, but it was the Ohio State passing game that eventually dealt the knockout blows. Day had confidence in Stroud to stay aggressive and Stroud rewarded that confidence with the kind of throws that won him the starting job in the first place.
“Coach Day he told me no matter how I’m playing, good or bad, he trusts in me. He believes in me,” Stroud said. “Having a head coach like that, it’s a blessing from God and he’s a great man for that.”
The Buckeyes walked out of Minnesota having reached their goal of going 1-0 after one week.
Up next is a ranked Oregon team looking to make the college football world stand up and take notice.
When the Ducks do come to town, they’ll be facing an Ohio State offense with a quarterback who is more experienced than the one they’ll see on film from Thursday night.
“It’s a great learning experience for me,” Stroud said of his ups and downs at Minnesota. “I feel like I kept my head up and stayed positive, and my teammates they just kept egging me on. Going into the Oregon week, you never know what could happen. It could happen again, but it’s all about what you’re going to do when you get punched in the mouth.”
If next week is anything like this past week, CJ Stroud may take a few shots, but don’t be surprised when he then responds with some knockout blows of his own.