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'We said we can't go out like this:' Halftime talk sparks Ohio State to 48-45 Rose Bowl win vs. Utah

Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a record performance to lead Ohio State to a 48-45 comeback win against Utah in the Rose Bowl.

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PASADENA, Calif. — The coaches were not in the locker room at halftime. Only Ohio State's players.

And their message to each other after an ugly first half in the Rose Bowl against Utah was clear.

"The coaches were not in there," senior left tackle Thayer Munford said. "We had a team talk. Demario McCall, Jeremy Ruckert, every senior playing last game. We said we can't go out like this. We can't. We've got to keep fighting. Our motto is 'Fight.' If you don't fight, your motto means nothing."

The No. 6 Buckeyes then put action to their words, rallying from multiple 14-point deficits for a 48-45 victory over the No. 11 Utes on Noah Ruggles' 19-yard field goal with 9 seconds left.

The game was filled with twists and turns, but it will be mostly remembered for a record-setting performance by Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. With fellow star receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson sitting out to protect against an injury before entering the NFL draft, Smith-Njigba said early in the week that he welcomed the challenge of filling the void.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Smith-Njigba not to press and try to do too much.

"He didn't listen," Day quipped.

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs past Utah cornerback Malone Mataele (15) during the second quarter of the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs past Utah cornerback Malone Mataele (15) during the second quarter of the Rose Bowl. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

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All Smith-Njigba did was catch 15 passes for three touchdowns and 347 yards, the most in bowl history. Any bowl history.

"It's just a blessing," Smith-Njigba said. "I've got to give all things to God. Without Him, nothing's possible. I've got to give thanks to coach (Day) and C.J., of course, for giving me opportunities, and the O-line. It's not just me. I couldn't have done it without them."

Smith-Njigba's brilliance helped C.J. Stroud throw for 573 yards and six touchdowns on 37-for-46 passing. Stroud's three other touchdowns were to freshman Marvin Harrison Jr.

Harrison's last touchdown tied the game with 10 minutes left after Ohio State trailed all game. Smith-Njigba then made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch in tight coverage for a 30-yard score to give Ohio State its first lead with 4:22 left.

But a defense that regrouped after a disastrous first half allowed Utah (10-4) to drive for a tying touchdown. Utes quarterback Cameron Rising was knocked out of the game on a Kourt Williams sack, only to have backup Bryson Barnes lead the Utes to a tying touchdown with 1:54 left on a 15-yard touchdown to Dalton Kincaid with 1:54 left.

Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (18) celebrates with tight end Jeremy Ruckert (88) after Harrison scored a touchdown during the third quarter.
Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (18) celebrates with tight end Jeremy Ruckert (88) after Harrison scored a touchdown during the third quarter. Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch

The Buckeyes then drove 56 yards in seven plays. Smith-Njigba had a 12-yard catch followed by a 9-yard TreVeyon Henderson carry to set up Ruggles' game-winning kick.

"I'm just very proud of the coaching staff, the players, and the leaders of this team for playing the way we did, especially in the second half, and winning this game," Day said.

The Buckeyes (11-2) entered the game both deflated and depleted. Their championship dreams ended in Ann Arbor, and their motivation for a non-College Football Playoff bowl game was an open question. Utah, on the other hand, regarded its first appearance in the Rose Bowl as the pinnacle for its program. Utes fans vastly outnumbered Buckeyes ones among the 87,842 in attendance.

With left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett joining Olave and Wilson as opt-outs, the Buckeyes entered the week short-handed. Several other key players were listed as unavailable. One of them, senior defensive back Marcus Williamson, posted critical tweets of the program during the game.

The Buckeyes began the game with only 64 scholarship players. The attrition continued during the game. Defensive end Jack Sawyer was ejected for targeting and defensive back Lathan Ransom was carted off the field with a left leg injury in the first half.

At several points during the game, Ohio State looked to be on the verge of being blown out. Utah led 14-0 early and 35-21 in a first half that featured a dizzying mix of highlights and lowlights. The teams combined for 660 yards, almost evenly split. But Utah maintained the upper hand. After being stopped on their first possession, the Utes scored on their next two drives to take a 14-0 lead.

Ohio State went three-and-out on its first two possessions and needed a rare Stroud scramble to avoid a third. From then on, the Buckeyes' offense got cooking.

Stroud threw a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-1 to Harrison Jr. for OSU's first score.

After Utah scored again for a 21-7 lead, the teams combined for three touchdowns in 30 seconds.

Stroud connected with Smith-Njigba for a 50-yard score, only to have Utah's Britain Covey return the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud greets a friend after the Buckeyes’ victory.
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud greets a friend after the Buckeyes’ victory. Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch

Smith-Njigba then scored again on a 52-yard reception from Stroud only two plays later.

But Utah answered on its next possession. On fourth-and-1, Rising broke a tackle and ran 62 yards for a touchdown to make it 35-21.

Smith-Njigba looked like would score his third touchdown of the half when he caught a pass and streaked toward the end zone. Cornerback Clark Phillips, a one-time OSU commit, then punched the ball free from behind and Utah recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

The Buckeyes averaged 11.2 yards per snap and yet trailed by 14 because of their defense.

Ohio State caught a huge break early in the third quarter when Utah punter Michael Williams mishandled the snap at the Utes' 11, setting up Harrison's second touchdown.

The teams then traded field goals to set up the wild fourth quarter.

"I couldn't be prouder of our guys," Day said. "For our seniors, I can't say enough about the legacy they've left behind, especially winning this game the way we did. Then for our younger guys, the momentum that we have right now moving forward is tremendous.

"We have a lot of work to do in the off-season, but we found out a little bit about our team in the second half here."

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at or on Twitter @brdispatch.

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