Rob Oller: Ohio State best performances ever? Smith-Njigba edges Stroud for title
One week into 2022 and odds are we won’t see better performances on a college football field the rest of the year than what already transpired on Jan. 1, when two Ohio State players went 100-point Wilt Chamberlain in the granddaddy of them all.
Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba set records in a 48-45 Rose Bowl win over the Utah Utes that should last for years — unless the teammates go all 1973 Belmont Stakes on the next depleted defensive secondary they face.
Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths is the single-best performance in horse racing history, just as Chamberlain’s 100-pointer for Philadelphia against the New York Knicks in 1962 remains the NBA single-game scoring ceiling.
What Stroud and Smith-Njigba accomplished does not match those two historic highlights, but as individual performances, they sit atop the list of Ohio State single-game achievements.
The only question is which was better? Stroud’s school-record 573 yards and record-tying six touchdowns, both of which also set Rose Bowl records? Or Smith-Njigba’s 15 catches for 347 yards (both Rose Bowl records) and three touchdowns, which tied the Rose Bowl mark? The 347 yards also shattered the OSU single-game mark of 253 yards set by Terry Glenn in 1995 against Pittsburgh, while the 15 catches tied his own school record set Nov. 6 against Nebraska.
Give a slight edge to Smith-Njigba, since the 347 yards were the most ever in an FBS bowl game and broke the Ohio State record by 96 yards. Stroud’s 573 were the third most ever in a bowl, trailing the 576 thrown by Brigham Young’s Ty Detmer and Marshall’s Byron Leftwich. Four lousy yards from owning the record, but still not too shabby. Stroud’s 37-of-45 performance also broke, by 74 yards, the school record of 499 set by Dwayne Haskins in the 2018 Big Ten Championship win against Northwestern.
What other Ohio State performances give Stroud and Smith-Njigba a run for their money? Glad you asked. My list gives strong consideration to opponent strength and magnitude of the moment. Coming up big in bowls and against Michigan count more than putting up big numbers against Rutgers.
The list is based on single games, not specific plays, or Clarett ripping the ball from Miami’s Sean Taylor in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl would be No. 1. That said, a memorable moment occurring during a breakout game adds value to any performance.
3. Keith Byars rushed for what was then a school-record 274 yards against Illinois in 1984. Trailing 24-0, Ohio State turned to its junior tailback, whose record day rallied the Buckeyes to a 45-38 win that kept alive their bid for an eventual Rose Bowl berth. The record-tying five-touchdown performance was punctuated by a 62-yard TD dash, during which Byars lost his left shoe early in the run.
4. Trey Sermon rushed for a school-record 331 yards against Northwestern in the 2020 Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes were without 22 players due to COVID-19 protocols, and quarterback Justin Fields had an off day (two interceptions and just 114 yards passing), so OSU needed Sermon to come up big. His 331 yards broke Eddie George’s school mark (314) and were the most rushing yards in FBS conference championship game history.
5. Ezekiel Elliott’s 230 rushing yards tormented Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. Leading 34-28 with 3:24 left, the junior tailback famously ran “85 yards through the heart of the South” to give the Buckeyes some needed cushion during their 42-35 win in the playoff semifinal. Zeke followed with 246 yards in the national championship game win against Oregon, but beating Bama was a breakthrough moment for the program.
6. J.T. Barrett sparked a fourth-quarter comeback against No. 2 Penn State in 2017. The senior quarterback enjoyed the best game of his career, completing 33 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns, three coming in the fourth quarter when he converted all 13 of his throws as part of a then school-record 16 consecutive completions. The captain also rushed for 95 yards in the 39-38 win at the Horseshoe.
7. Chris Spielman finished with 29 tackles (10 solo) against Michigan in 1986 to match Tom Cousineau’s 29 (nine solo) against Penn State in 1978. Both performances were not enough to prevent losses — UM defeated OSU 26-24; PSU blanked the Buckeyes 19-0 — but it was not for lack of trying. For comparison, linebacker Tommy Eichenberg was heralded for 17 tackles against Utah in the Rose Bowl.
8. John Simon recorded four sacks against Wisconsin to help preserve OSU’s perfect 2012 season. The Buckeyes were not bowl eligible due to NCAA violations committed in 2010, so going undefeated during the regular season was the best they could do. Four of Simon’s five tackles were sacks, tying the school record, helping Ohio State win 21-14 in overtime to improve to 11-0. The next week the Buckeyes defeated Michigan 26-21 to finish 12-0.
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9. Senior defensive back Fred Bruney’s three interceptions against Michigan helped save Woody Hayes’ job. Ohio State was 0-6-1 against the Wolverines since 1944 when No. 12 UM came to Columbus in 1952 looking to sew up a trip to the Rose Bowl. The unranked Buckeyes were 9-6-2 under Hayes over two seasons as The Game approached, with cries of “Fire Woody” in the air. Bruney’s three picks quieted the boo birds for awhile. Ohio State won 27-7 and Hayes coached 26 more seasons.
10. Eddie George put 207 rushing yards on Notre Dame in 1995. Ohio State had not played ND since 1936, and in one of the most anticipated and loudest games in Ohio Stadium history, the senior tailback thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy race — he would win the award three months later — and led the Buckeyes to a 45-26 win, their first victory against the Fighting Irish.
Honorable mention: Fields’ 385 yards and six touchdowns against Clemson in 2020; Cousineau and Ryan Shazier’s 16 solo tackles against SMU (1978) and Indiana (2013); TreVeyon Henderson’s 277 rushing yards against Tulsa this season that broke Archie Griffin’s freshman record of 239 set in 1972.
Certainly, 2022 will feature some fantastic individual performances, possibly in Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Georgia. But two in the same game, on the level of Stroud and Smith-Njigba? Don’t bank on it.