ATLANTA — C.J. Stroud stared into space.
Roughly 30 minutes had passed since Georgia beat Ohio State 42-41 in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Peach Bowl on Saturday, and the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist was still very much processing.
As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buckeyes kicker Noah Ruggles missed a potential game-winning 50-yard field goal that would have sent his team to the national championship.
Had Ruggles’ kick gone through the uprights, Ohio State would be heading back home to Columbus on Sunday to start game planning for TCU, which upset Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl earlier in the day. Then they’d head to Los Angeles in a few days to start preparing for the biggest prize in college football.
Instead, the season is over.
And so there sat Stroud in his sweaty Ohio State jersey and sweatband. He was despondent and heartbroken, sitting alongside Ryan Day and defensive lineman Zach Harrison, taking questions about what just happened.
“I can’t say too much about how we fought,” said Stroud, who completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns without any interceptions, though he was sacked four times.
“We kept swinging, kept fighting, kept swinging, kept fighting. Of course, you’re going to have some regrets on certain plays, wish you did this, wish you did that. But at the end of the day, it’s a man in the arena. It’s hard to do what we do. You’ve got to be joyful in these moments. Of course, I’m not sitting here smiling and happy. Of course, you want to win things like this and this means a lot to us. I mean, me and Coach Day, man, like we get up early every morning on the phone constantly, whatever we can do to win and put smiles on people’s faces. It’s tough.”
Unlike after the Michigan loss, when the Buckeyes’ future was unknown — they didn’t slide into the fourth playoff spot until the following week — the aura felt different on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Day was strangely upbeat for a coach who just lost a playoff game by such a narrow margin. Stroud spoke with confidence and resiliency, offering high praise for his head coach and the program he will soon leave behind, as he is expected to be a top pick in the NFL draft.
Perhaps that’s because Ohio State actually shut up some of its doubters and answered some pressing questions. Heading into this game, there was plenty of talk about how Ohio State might respond to Georgia five weeks after its second straight demoralizing defeat to Michigan. Would they let The Game hover over their preparation? Would they be intimidated? Was the program at a crossroads? Was there legitimacy to concerns that Day might not be the guy to lead Ohio State to a national championship when the Buckeyes are a national-championship-or-bust type of program?
After Saturday’s result, any lingering questions can probably be narrowed down to this: Is a one-point loss in a CFP semifinal against the reigning national champions enough to alter — if not fully erase — the current narrative that Ohio State is not set up to be a perennial powerhouse like Georgia and Alabama?
After losing to Michigan, Ohio State got back to work immediately — before the Buckeyes even knew they’d be playing Georgia. With Stroud as the leader, players were back in the weight room and getting extra reps together on the field, even before USC‘s loss in the Pac-12 championship allowed OSU to slide into the fourth and final playoff spot. Then, in the 35 days between the Michigan and Georgia games, Day said his team had 1,500 reps during their bowl practices in anticipation of this matchup. They even had an analyst chart it. This came down to an average of 42 reps per day.
It nearly paid off. Ohio State came so close to pulling off an upset.
Late in the fourth quarter, Stetson Bennett led Georgia on a five-play, 72-yard drive to take a one-point lead. They left 54 seconds for Stroud to do something. The two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year made smart plays, like the 27-yard scramble to the UGA 31-yard line, and throwing the ball away on third down when Georgia put on an all-out blitz, setting up the final field goal attempt.
“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win, though,” Day said. “And I think that’s probably what hurts the most is that when you put that much work and that much energy and that much time into something, and you’re right there and you just — you don’t get the victory.
“This is a performance business, and you win, or you lose, and we lost the game. That’s just what hurts to our core. And that’s what it is. We’re here to win, and it didn’t happen.”
There was a sense that Day’s seat may have felt a little warmer after the Michigan game. Stroud was quick to stick up for his coach, praising his game plan and decision-making on Saturday, including the first down call after Stroud ran to the 31-yard line on the final drive. Day called a run play for Dallan Hayden, who was tackled for a 1-yard loss.
Day explained the idea was they still had two timeouts, and a couple of yards could have aided the field goal. He said he wouldn’t have changed the call despite not executing, and Stroud quickly chimed in to say, “it was a good call, great call.”
Ohio State also gave up some explosive plays against Georgia, similar to some it allowed vs. Michigan. There was Kenny McIntosh’s 52-yard run up the middle in the first half that would have been a touchdown had the running back not tripped on the turf (it still set up a Georgia touchdown two plays later). And there was Bennett’s 76-yard touchdown bomb to Arian Smith in the fourth quarter to make it a three-point game. But Day explained that even though limiting big plays just like those was something they worked so hard to avoid, they were different this time.
“The difference was, in this game, it didn’t demoralize us,” Day said. “We kept swinging and fighting, and we just kept going at it.
“But call it for what it is. If we’re going to win these games, we can’t give up those big explosive plays. They’re hard to come back from. But there were still a lot of positive things out there.”
Ohio State matched Georgia’s energy and physicality and relentless attitude, and for the most part, was in total control. The Buckeyes just fell short this time.
“Let’s call it for what it is there. They are defending national champs, undefeated,” Day said of Georgia. “They’re a good team. But I don’t think there’s one guy in that locker room that doesn’t feel like we shouldn’t have won the game. Again, that’s a part of this thing that is going to sit in our stomachs for a long time.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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