If there’s such a thing as the Rose Bowl no one wanted, this was it for Ohio State. The Buckeyes got waxed by their rivals to close the regular season and that already prompted an upcoming change at defensive coordinator. Several key players opted out of the game — a decision I respect and understand because it’s not my lottery ticket being risked in a meaningless exhibition game — while several other players were missing due to injury. So, both Chip Minnich and I felt that the Buckeyes were ripe for an upset in this edition of the Rose Bowl.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, although it looked like anything but an OSU win for most of the 60 minutes on Saturday. Ultimately, the Buckeyes did just enough in a crazy 48-45 win. Nevertheless, I had a lot to gripe about, as usual. Here’s what aggravated my hangover in Ohio State’s Rose Bowl match-up with Utah.
Pre-Snap Issues Early, Often
Ohio State burned an early timeout on a Utah third down when there seemed to be some confusion as to who belonged on the field. Jerron Cage ran off the field and got all the way to the sideline before being sent back on. The Buckeyes took a timeout with Utah about to snap the ball as the team seemingly was out of sorts. The Buckeyes did stop the third down after the timeout, so it worked out.
There were multiple issues in the second half which forced the Buckeyes to call timeout twice. On one of them, the play clock ran down before a first-and-10 play. That first down was acquired via an offside penalty on the Utah defense. I’m no coach, but I think maybe one could get the play call in while the refs are walking off the yardage. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of time. Another issue seemed to be caused by Jeremy Ruckert not knowing where he was supposed to line up. In addition to those, there were a few other times when the snap barely took place before the clock expired. These issues have happened periodically all season, but seemed to happen more than usual in the Rose Bowl.
Worst Fears Realized
When Ohio State lost to Michigan and didn’t reach its goals, the Rose Bowl always felt like a consolation prize. That was exacerbated when Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Nicolas Petit-Frere, and Haskell Garrett all opted out. It always seemed like the Buckeyes were going to be the team that was less excited to be in the Rose Bowl. The ticket sales indicated the fan bases felt the same. So, the Buckeyes played exactly that way throughout the first half. Early on, the body language showed that the Utes were much more excited about playing in the “grandaddy of them all” than the Buckeyes, and horrible tackling and disinterested blocking attempts on offense allowed Utah to take control early. Ohio State managed to find its enthusiasm for the game due to the excitement provided by the offense and got better defensively in the second half (although the defense was still laughably bad at times — more on that below).
Targeting Rears Its Ugly, Subjective Head
It must be great, while running full tilt downfield at top speed while trying to make a tackle, to have the gift of clairvoyance, so that you’ll always know where another guy (also running at top speed) will contort his body at the end of a play. Jack Sawyer did not know where Cameron Rising’s head would be while trying to run him down from behind, and the right side of his helmet made contact with Rising’s lid in the second quarter. The crown of the helmet is not a part you can lead with, and although it was more the right side of Sawyer’s helmet which made contact with Rising’s, that was enough for a targeting ejection. An already depleted defense lost a key player because of the game’s worst rule (the automatic ejection) and most subjective rule (targeting as written).
Just Recruit a Guy with a Thunderbolt for a Leg Already!
Ohio State hates having someone who can, and does, kick the ball out of the back of the end zone on kickoffs. The Buckeyes have either refused to, or have been unable to, get the automatic touchback for years, and that bit them in the second quarter. After Ohio State scored to pull within a touchdown, Britain Covey shook free of Lathan Ransom on the ensuing kick return and outran the entire OSU coverage team to put the Utes back up 14. To add injury to that insult, Ransom was put in an air cast, carted off the field, and taken to the hospital. A kid with Thor’s hammer for a leg would have prevented both the touchdown and the injury. I’ve seen FCS schools with kids who can hammer a ball out of the back of the end zone every time, but the Buckeyes don’t seem interested in that, regardless of how much danger an opposing return man poses.
Tackling: Not Optional and Not Optimal
It was a crucial moment in the first half, with Utah opting to go for it on fourth down. A stop by the defense (yes, I know) would have given Ohio State great field position and, more importantly, stopped some of the defensive bleeding. Rising kept the football and got just enough for the first down, with Teradja Mitchell trying to bring him down. But the OSU defender let Rising slip out of his grasp and the Utah quarterback just kept running until he scored a touchdown. It was eerily similar to a long quarterback run the Jets got against Jacksonville last weekend. It was just an embarrassingly bad play in a game filled with them for the OSU defense.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a huge day. But he also had a huge error that kept Ohio State from coming back a bit earlier in the game. Breaking behind the defense and catching a ball down the middle, JSN appeared headed for another touchdown in an already incredible game that was only going to get even more unreal throughout the evening. But he then got caught from behind and the ball was punched out inside the 5-yard line. Utah fell on it in the end zone to blow up what should have been an OSU score.
CJ Stroud, like Smith-Njigba, had an incredible game. But also like his wide receiver, he made one critical mistake. Actually, he made two but only one of them was costly. Ohio State drove down the field and looked to pull within one score on the opening possession of the second half. While trying to hit Utah with a double move, Stroud pump faked and then tried to find Julian Fleming in the right corner of the end zone. But he left the pass too far inside and Clark Phillips wasn’t fooled by the double move. Phillips intercepted the ball in the end zone and the Buckeyes came up empty on the drive as they continued to fight uphill to get back into the game. It was a rare mistake by Stroud, who also threw back across the middle later on a tipped ball that could have been intercepted. The second error didn’t hurt and ultimately the interception only made the win more difficult, but not impossible.
The Hickman Follies
The Buckeyes finally took the lead in the fourth quarter and a defense that had held the Utes to three second-half points through about 25 minutes needed one more stop to put the game away. Utah had turned to backup quarterback Bryson Barnes after Rising’s head hit the turf hard while getting sacked on the previous possession. The Utes clearly didn’t want to throw the ball unless they had to and Ohio State did a good job of shutting down the run. So Barnes threw a third-down pass and got a soft pass interference call to extend the drive. And then Barnes decided to pick on Ronnie Hickman — and it worked. Barnes threw a deep ball and Hickman was beaten badly by the tight end. Trailing on the play, Hickman never turned to find the underthrown pass and he ran into the receiver, giving Utah a first down by penalty. The next play, Barnes just threw a moon ball to the back of the end zone and Hickman was beaten badly again for the touchdown, tying the game at 45 with under two minutes to play.
Ohio State’s lack of hurrying down the field on the final drive was understandable, given the way the defense had played all day. The Buckeyes still worked their way down the field and got inside the 5-yard line. I have no problem with letting the clock run down for a short field goal attempt because the team has a reliable kicker. However, the timeout was taken with 12 seconds left, which was an odd amount of time to leave on the clock. It was the team’s last timeout, so it’s unlikely the team could have recovered a bad snap without the clock running out before the next snap.
Noah Ruggles provided the late lead with a short field goal. But those extra nine seconds on the clock gave Utah a chance. Then Ohio State assisted Utah’s chance by kicking the ball to Covey for…reasons? That was just asking for trouble, but the Buckeyes managed to make a special teams stop they never should have had to make. The decision making in the final 30 seconds was a bit on the suspect side. Did it work? Sure, but success doesn’t justify the failure to maximize the chance of success.
Those are the things that gave me heart palpitations during Ohio State’s Rose Bowl win. Obviously there were all kinds of great things (on the offensive side of the ball, at least) that made me smile, as well. Smith-Njigba and Stroud set all kinds of records, Marvin Harrison Jr. came of age, and it was nice to see the Buckeyes show some resiliency in a game in which they trailed for so long. It’s hard to be too miffed with a Rose Bowl win, especially when you’re as old as I am and Rose Bowl victories were both the gold standard for the season and difficult to come by.
That’s it for the 2021 season and now we’ll spend the off-season tracking the changes to the coaching staff, seeing which players are coming back (and not), and getting ready for 2022. Thanks for reading this column this season and have a great new year.