It’s the smell that got to CJ Stroud. Well, that among other things in the multi-sensory assault that was his first Rose Bowl.
Talk all you want about the Rose and its many distinctions — sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains, a parade that almost supersedes the game itself, Keith Jackson’s voice floating in some ethereal cloud above it all — there is always that moment for newcomers.
For Ohio State’s junior quarterback, it was, well, everything.
“I would say roses, that’s what it’s about,” Stroud said. “It’s unique. It’s smells good. It looks good. It feels good. Best grass I ever played on in my life. It’s just everything about it is what I expected it to be. This is why the Rose Bowl is special.”
That from a kid who grew up within an hour of Pasadena, California. It’s one thing to watch the Grandaddy of ‘Em All on TV; it’s another to experience the game’s uniqueness.
In addition to the sights, colors and smells, for the no. 2 Buckeyes, it is where the 2021 season ended and the 2022 season began.
Anyone who witnessed that game on Jan. 1 might still have their head spinning from Ohio State’s 48-45 win over Utah. Stroud threw for a school record 573 yards and school record tying six touchdowns. Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba announced himself with 15 catches for an FBS bowl-record 347 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
“It was a combination of great minds and great players,” Stroud said. “… That was the most fun I [had playing] in my life.”
“Maybe some places, 11-2 and a Rose Bowl victory is a good year. It isn’t at Ohio State,” coach Ryan Day said.
The result revealed both to be true. Combined, the lingering Rose Bowl scent, feeling and look was an explanation point for what was ultimately a sub-standard season at Ohio State. However, it also served as a jumping off point for Stroud and Smith-Njigba.
“That was the goal going into it,” Day said of that springboard for his star offensive players. “We talked about it going in.”
Now, the two biggest Buckeye weapons are the Rat Pack of 2022, inseparable buddies who play off one another. Stroud is the Heisman Trophy favorite with 2-1 odds entering the season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Just outside the top 10 on that list is Smith-Njigba; arguably the game’s best receiver sits at 40-1. Between them is another burgeoning superstar as OSU running back TreVeyon Henderson enters the year at 20-1.
“I don’t want to think about it, but I do,” said Stroud, who finished fourth in Heisman voting as a 2021 finalist. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t.”
Stroud threw for the second-most yards (4,435) and touchdowns (44) in school history. Henderson averaged 6.8 yards per carry, amassing nearly 1,600 combined yards and 19 touchdowns with some exceptional single-game performances.
Playing in the shadows of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Smith-Njigba set school records for catches (95) and yards receiving (1,606). Wilson and Olave merely combined for 25 touchdown catches on their way to the NFL. In the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba had what might be a good month for another player.
“I think I’m the best, so I have to work like it,” he said.
Buckeyes everywhere can afford to dream because this is Ohio State’s best team since 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but at Ohio State, it’s notable. That team three years ago was good enough to win it all but got derailed by Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
It’s taken that long for Buckeye Nation to feel this good about itself again. The 2020 COVID-19-impacted team played only eight games and got blown out by Alabama, 52-24 in the Orange Bowl semifinal. Last season, the Oregon loss was the first by Ohio State to a Power Five nonconference opponent at home since Oklahoma in 2017.
The latest nonconference challenge awaits. No. 5 Notre Dame comes to The Shoe as a 14.5-point underdog in the tastiest game of Week 1.
The loss at Michigan last November marked another first — Day’s first defeat in the Big Ten in his 24th conference game. That Ohio State team led the nation in total offense. The problem was easily identifiable: The defense — particularly the run defense — was pliable. The 3.68 yards per rush allowed by the defense was Ohio State’s second-highest average in a decade. In that Rose Bowl, Utah tied a program bowl-game record with 45 points scored.
Most disturbing was Ohio State being boat-raced out of Michigan Stadium in the second half to drop the Big Ten East crown. actually, most disturbing was the defense giving up at least 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1891.
Almost everything at Ohio State must be viewed through a relative lens. Stroud recently advocated for revenue sharing in this name, image and likeness era. This from a rising junior who is driving a Bentley around as part of his NIL deal.
During a vacation to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, he expressed surprise at being recognized.
“It’s kind of cool, but it’s scary at the same time,” he said. “I’m not used to people staring at me.”
Never mind there’s a lot of staring going on. Stroud routinely plays in front of 100,000 people, after all. Ohio State is among the top 10 universities in the nation with more than 500,000 living alumni.
“I just want to stack days,” Stroud added. “If I think about the Heisman, I’ll just overrun myself and put too much pressure on myself.”
If the defense doesn’t improve, Stroud, Smith-Njigba and Henderson may just have to carry the Buckeyes by outscoring everyone else. And that makes almost perfect sense in this day and age. After all, Alabama claimed the playoff in 2020 with the third-worst total defense ever to win a national championship (since at least 1936).
Smells like another title run?
“We don’t have to prove anybody wrong,” Stroud concluded. “We have to prove ourselves right.”