Why I gained new respect — and ate serious crow — for CJ Stroud's Peach Bowl brilliance
With Ohio sports betting LIVE NOW, you can sign-up today and get hundreds of dollars in bonuses to use on the Browns, Bengals, any NFL or NBA game, or yes, the college football national championship next week:
21+ and present in OH. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.
ATLANTA — I’ve got a confession.
I wasn’t a CJ Stroud guy.
I was the guy who argued that Stroud was being propped up this year by some extremely favorable surroundings. Great receivers? Check. Elite play-callers? Check. Overmatched competition? Check. I argued that his dip in production against elite foes in 2022 was why he wasn’t worthy of an invite to New York. I believed anyone considering Stroud as a top-5 NFL Draft pick was out of its mind because of his struggles against pressure and his lack of willingness to use his legs. I thought that would lead to a long night against Georgia’s vaunted defense.
I’ve got another confession — on Saturday night, I became a Stroud guy. Yes, even in a losing effort.
The Ohio State quarterback was brilliant. He picked apart that Georgia defense in ways that we really haven’t seen outside of 2019 Joe Burrow, 2020 Kyle Trask, 2020 Mac Jones and 2021 Bryce Young.
And here’s the kicker. Stroud’s surroundings got progressively worse by the end of the night.
He was already without preseason All-American Jaxon Smith-Njigba and stud tailback TreVeyon Henderson. Top tight end Cade Stover went down, second-string tailback Miyan Williams was limited coming off a sickness and most importantly, Marvin Harrison Jr. left the game in the second half with a concussion. Go figure it was on a play in which Stroud improvised and nearly pulled off another off-platform, miraculous touchdown.
You know, like he did earlier with Harrison, who looked virtually unguardable before he got hurt.
If Harrison finishes that game, perhaps this column isn’t “Stroud deserved better” and it’s instead “Stroud just had his 2020 Justin Fields” moment.
Oh! That was the other thing I wondered about with Stroud. As in, was he even a top-3 Ohio State quarterback during the Playoff era?
In hindsight, that sounds silly. If you watched Stroud on Saturday night against the No. 2 defense in America, you saw someone who was poised, elusive and dare I say, gritty. The guy who was criticized for not running had a 27-yard scamper that put Ohio State in position for a potential game-winning field goal. Kirby Smart estimated that Georgia missed 4 sacks in the first half alone. Stroud wasn’t swallowed whole by Jalen Carter as many (myself included) speculated. He escaped pressure when he had to, and when he got a clean pocket, he stepped into throws and he hit open receivers in stride.
It almost felt like Stroud heard every ounce of criticism following the Michigan game, and he attempted to debunk every last bit of it. That’s what it was going to take in order to take down the unbeaten defending national champs.
You could argue that slaying Goliath took maybe 1 more completion to set up an easier field goal, but I’d argue that 41 points against that defense, especially when Ohio State’s ground game was depleted and by no means pulling its weight, was more than enough.
Given the stakes, it’s not a “prisoner of the moment take” to suggest that it was the best — and perhaps final — game of Stroud’s Ohio State career. Go figure that it was his first and only Playoff start. Assuming he’s off to the NFL, he’ll never get to play in a national championship like Justin Fields or Cardale Jones. He’ll never get to celebrate some statement win against Michigan like JT Barrett or the late Dwayne Haskins. Many will struggle to put Stroud’s career in perspective because of the lack of team success — by Ohio State standards — associated with it.
But that shouldn’t diminish what Stroud did on Saturday night.
If Noah Ruggles’ kick sails through the uprights, who knows? We’re probably talking about how Stroud suddenly is the favorite to lead Ohio State to a national title for the first time since the 2014 season.
Instead, though, Stroud’s year ended in gut-wrenching style. Ohio State squandered a 14-point lead, Day will be criticized for his late play-calling because, well, that’s the job.
The job of “Ohio State quarterback” has at times felt a bit unfair to Stroud. Maybe there wasn’t 1 thing that he did better than any of his predecessors, but should that matter? He got to New York twice and he delivered one of the best Playoff performances we’ve seen from a quarterback, win or lose.
Stroud saved his best for last. There’s no denying that he converted plenty of skeptics on Saturday night in Atlanta.