Ohio State football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 season
Roughly 115 teams in FBS football would kill for the 10-2 regular season that Ohio State just finished. But alas, Ohio State isn’t one of those programs.
A pair of losses — to highly ranked Oregon in September and to Michigan in the regular season finale — will color the perception of the season for the Buckeyes. Despite the bad taste left in the collective mouths of the Buckeyes, there was plenty to enjoy from the 2021 regular season. We’ll sort it out here with some post-regular season team superlatives.
Team MVP: CJ Stroud
For an inexperienced guy who was something of a question mark, Stroud exceeded all but the highest of expectations in a 2021 season that saw him emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
He completed 71% of his passes for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns. Even when State struggled, Stroud generally remained strong. He never completed less than 59% of his passes in any game, and only once did he throw more than a single interception — in the win over Nebraska. Meanwhile, he had 4 400+ yard passing games and set a single-game OSU mark for passing touchdowns (6) against Michigan State.
Offensive MVPs: Olave and Wilson
There were so many deserving candidates for this award, it seemed impossible to divide the spoils. So, we’ll go with a co-award for the inseparable pair of receivers who were exactly what they were supposed to be. The two combined for 135 catches for 1,994 yards and 25 touchdowns. WIlson missed a single game due to injury, but outside of that, each was a consistently brilliant security blanket for Stroud in his development. Versatile, talented and consistent, picking either Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson would have just seemed wrong — both were superb.
Defensive MVP: Ronnie Hickman
Given that the Buckeyes lost their top 5 tacklers from 2020 (and 6 of their top 7), there was a void to be filled. Hickman, who had 5 tackles last season, filled the vacuum, picking up 98 stops to pace the Buckeyes by a good bit. He also tied for the team lead in interceptions and his pick-6 against Akron felt like the turning point for the Buckeyes defense (up until the season finale). Moving forward, Hickman will be a player to build around for the Buckeyes secondary.
True Freshman of the Year: TreVeyon Henderson
Henderson was expected to be one of the best running backs in OSU history… and he was. With 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, and another 285 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air, Henderson was a force to be reckoned with. Moving ahead, if he can get 25 carries a game, Henderson can rewrite the entire OSU offensive record book.
Transfer of the Year: Noah Ruggles
OSU didn’t exactly embrace the transfer portal, so there weren’t a ton of impact players who ended up in Columbus via that route. But Ruggles was definitely one — with OSU lacking an experienced kicker, the North Carolina transfer settled in nicely. Ruggles connected on 16 of 17 field goal tries as well as all 65 extra point attempts. What could have been a difficult transition for the Buckeyes went very well.
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Most Improved: Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Smith-Njigba had impressed before the season, but went from a guy who played sparingly in 2020 (10 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown) to OSU’s top receiving threat. Maybe it was in part due to the attention that Olave and Wilson drew, but Smith-Njigba emerged as OSU’s top threat in the passing game, hauling in 80 receptions for 1,259 yards. He had 6 100-yard receiving games and was razor-sharp in the intermediate passing game. While his step up wasn’t unexpected, the fact that it was a step and a leap and then a bounce might have been.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba just cooked the entire Nebraska defense #CFB
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 6, 2021
Biggest surprise: Tyleik Williams
Williams, a massive defensive tackle, was not particularly highly regarded, but he played well inside as a true freshman, racking up stats while higher-rated defensive recruits were stuck to the bench. Williams didn’t see a ton of time, but he was productive, finishing the season with 5 sacks, a pass deflection and a forced fumble. He’s far from a finished product, but Williams showed real flashes of all-conference or all-America talent in 2021, despite being a guy who wasn’t really expected to see the field.
Play of the Year: An improvisation
This was easily the hardest category to figure. Take a Heisman quality QB, a trio of receivers who will probably each reach 1,000 yards, and a running back who channels Bo Jackson’s Tecmo Super Bowl skills, and there are a million touchdowns. State didn’t have that definitive come-from-behind win or clutch play that shifted the season, so it becomes purely a question of aesthetics.
Accordingly, CJ Stroud’s duck around, scramble and pass to Chris Olave who does the rest gets the nod. This play, against Rutgers, is pretty much what OSU could do on any given snap.
Best part of this @OhioStateFB Week 5 highlight:
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 3, 2021
Win of the Year: Michigan State
The Buckeyes don’t really have the hat-hanging kind of win on the season outside of their beatdown of the Spartans. Wins over Penn State and at Nebraska were hard-fought, but neither team was exactly stellar. But taking down No. 7 MSU and doing so in drastic fashion was a moment to remember.
Not only did OSU win 56-7, but Stroud set an OSU single-game passing TD record … in the first half. Twenty minutes into the game, it was 35-0, and Ohio State genuinely looked like the best team in the nation.