Rapid Reaction: CJ Stroud lights up No. 1 Georgia but Ohio State's defense can't hold on in CFP semifinal loss
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CJ Stroud quieted the doubters, but unfortunately for Ohio State, new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles couldn’t do likewise.
No. 1 Georgia, known for its stout defense, had to outscore the Buckeyes in their College Football Playoff semifinal in the wee hours of 2022 to advance to a meeting with TCU for the national championship.
The Bulldogs will get to defend their title thanks to a balanced offense that managed to outscore the Stroud-led OSU passing attack for a 42-41 victory in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
Georgia (14-0) will meet the No. 3 Horned Frogs (13-1) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. The Frogs advanced with a 51-45 victory over Michigan in Saturday’s first CFP semifinal and will be seeking their first recognized national title since 1938.
The Big Ten got 2 schools into the 4-team Playoff for the first time, but neither earned a shot at the league’s first national crown since the Buckeyes won in 2014.
Stroud, maligned for struggles in big games (including 2 losses to Michigan), played the best football of his college career to turn the game into a scoring war. Dodging bullets in the form of Georgia pass-rushers and throwing bullets to Harrison and others, the presumed 2023 first-round NFL Draft pick carried the Buckeyes.
Now 21-4 as a starter over the past 2 seasons, Stroud found his rhythm early and never lost it.
By late in the fourth quarter, Stroud had 336 yards and 4 TDs on 22-of-31 passing, and Ohio State had a 41-35 lead.
But Georgia went 72 yards on 5 plays in less than 2 minutes for the go-ahead score, leaving Ohio State about 1 minute to try to drive into field goal range for Noah Ruggles. Stroud hit Julian Fleming for 12 yards and ran for 27 to get his team into range. Stroud couldn’t gain any more yards, leaving Ruggles with a 50-yard try that he missed badly.
Knowles’ defense got mauled in the first half, but kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard in the third quarter and limited Georgia to a field goal on an early fourth-quarter red zone trip. But then, ugh, the Buckeyes gave up a 76-yard TD pass from Stetson Bennett to Arian Smith and the lead was trimmed to 38-35.
Stroud kept responding, spreading the ball to 6 teammates with Harrison and Emeka Egbuka each racking up more than 100 receiving yards. Georgia, which entered with the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation at 12.8 ppg allowed, gave up its most points on the season. Stroud, who has run exceedingly sparingly in his 25 starts, made a daring 17-yard scamper to keep a late drive alive.
Georgia’s vaunted defense got Stroud’s attention early, sending Smael Mondon Jr. blitzing up the middle for a 10-yard sack to end Ohio State’s first possession. The next time the Buckeyes got the ball, Stroud drifted in the pocket to buy time on several throws, including a 31-yard strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. for the first score of the game. Stroud went 3-for-3 for 68 yards on the 4-play, 71-yard drive.
A narrative was established just that quickly. With time, future NFL stars Stroud and Harrison could and would do work against the No. 7 team in total defense in the country. If the Bulldogs have a weakness on that side of the ball, it’s in the passing game, in which they give up 215 yards per game and rank just 49th in the nation.
Stroud heated up in a hurry after Mondon’s sack, finished the first quarter 7-of-8 for 101 yards as the Buckeyes were even with the No. 1 team in the country, tied 7-7. Including the 10 yards lost on the sack, Ohio State had just 9 rushing yards on 6 carries against the top rush defense in the country. Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden were splitting carries in the absence of top back TreVeyon Henderson.
Stroud stayed hot into the second quarter, moving the Bucks into the red zone to set up Williams for a powerful 2-yard touchdown run.
After Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett threw a pick to give the ball right back to Ohio State, Stroud scrambled away from pressure to hit Julian Fleming for 13 yards and then did a Houdini-like escape from a host of rushers before finding Harrison in the end zone for a 16-yard score. The sophomore receiver already had 5 catches for 106 yards at that point.
Just 4 minutes into the second quarter, the Buckeyes led 21-7. Stroud was 10-of-12 for 154 yards and 2 TDs.
But other than Steele Chambers’ interception, Jim Knowles’ defense couldn’t slow Bennett and the Bulldogs early on. After the Bulldogs marched 75 yards on 4 plays to close within 21-14, Bennett was 10-of-12 for 157 yards and the ground game had 43 yards on 7 carries.
Georgia’s 2nd sack, by Mykel Williams, ended Ohio State’s next drive in a fast-moving first half.
A 52-yard run by Kenny McIntosh got the Bulldogs inside the 10, and 2 plays later Bennett ran the ball into the end zone from the 5.
Despite Stroud’s hot start, the Buckeyes were in a tie game, 21-21, with about 6 minutes left in the half. And top pass-catching tight end Cade Stover was in the locker room with an injury — reportedly back spasms — that eventually sent him to a local hospital.
The momentum swing continued when an illegal motion call nullified a 4th-and-inches conversion by the Buckeyes.
After a 53-yard field goal drive to take the lead, Georgia’s yardage total stood at 315, including 124 on the ground. Ohio State had 10 on the ground at that point.
But Stroud wasn’t wasting time handing off. He went 4-for-4 for 75 yards to put his team back on top at 28-24 with a drive that took 55 seconds. At the half, the 3rd-year sophomore quarterback was 15-of-19 for 238 yards and 3 TDs.