Record-setting days by Jaxon Smith-Njigba, C.J. Stroud help Ohio State rally past Utah in dramatic Rose Bowl

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

PASADENA, Calif. — Ohio State entered Saturday's Rose Bowl against Utah deflated and depleted.

The No. 7 Buckeyes left it overjoyed.  

Ohio State recovered from a disastrous start to rally for a 48-45 victory over No. 11 Utah on Noah Ruggles' 19-yard field goal with 9 seconds left.

In a game with wild twists and turns, it will be remembered for a record-setting performance by Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

The sophomore receiver entered the week eager to help fill the void left by the opt-outs by fellow stars Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. He did better than anyone could imagine. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. It was the most receiving yards by anyone in bowl history.

Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba celebrates with quarterback C.J. Stroud after catching a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl vs. Utah.

Smith-Njigba's performance helped C.J. Stroud throw for 573 yards and six touchdowns – both Rose Bowl records – on 37-of-46 passing. Stroud's other three touchdowns were to freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. His yardage total is a new Ohio State single-game record. 

"I'm excited for our young guys," Smith-Njigba said. "We all just stepped up. Opportunities came my way, and it's what I prayed for. I can't be surprised by what I prayed for."

Stroud's third touchdown pass to Harrison tied the game at 38 in the fourth quarter. Smith-Njigba then caught a 30-yard pass to give Ohio State its first lead with 4:22 left.

When Utah quarterback Cameron Rising was knocked out of the game on a sack by Kourt Williams, a Buckeye victory seemed in grasp.

But backup Bryson Barnes led the Utes (10-4) to a tying touchdown with 1:54 left on a 15-yard touchdown to Dalton Kincaid.

Ohio State then drove 56 yards in seven plays to set up Ruggles' game-winner.

"These last few weeks have been hard," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "We really responded in the second half and played well. We have a lot of work to do in the offseason, but this team has a real chance to be special."

Said Smith-Njigba: "This was a must-win. We had a tough loss last game. Our guys did it. We fought back."

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 clearly outnumbered Buckeyes fans.

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, 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.

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At several points during the game, Ohio State looked doomed. 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. But 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.

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, Utah quarterback Cameron 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. But cornerback Clark Phillips, a one-time OSU commit, punched the ball free from behind and Utah recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

Ohio State had one last chance to score, but time expired after Julian Fleming caught a pass at the Utah 32.

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

“Thirty-five points in the first half is ridiculous,” Day said at halftime.

Both defenses settled down in the third quarter, holding each team to a field goal.

Then came the fourth-quarter drama.

"A bunch of guys made a decision at halftime," Day said. "A couple of years ago, in the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin, a few guys stood up and said 'We'll play better.' That's what happened today."    

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