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With three Heisman Trophy contenders, Ohio State has no plans to stop and smell the roses again in 2022

CJ Stroud smells it. Well, among other things, in the multisensory attack of his first Rose Bowl.

Talk about what you want about the rose and its many differences – sunset in the San Gabriel mountains, parade that pretty much replaces the game itself, Keith Jackson’s voice floating in some sort of ethereal cloud On – There’s always that moment for newcomers.

That’s everything for Ohio State’s junior quarterback.

“I would say rose, that’s what it’s about,” Stroud said. “It’s unique. It smells good. It looks good. It feels good. The best grass I’ve ever played with in my life. It’s everything I expected it to be. That’s what makes the Rose Bowl special.”

From Pasadena, CA, grew up within an hour. It’s one thing to watch their grandfather on TV; it’s another to experience the uniqueness of the game.

Aside from the sights, colors and smells, this is where the 2021 season ends and the 2022 season begins for the No. 2 Buckeyes.

Anyone who witnessed that game on Jan. 1 might still be giddy with Ohio State’s 48-45 win over Utah State. Stroud threw for a record 573 yards and tied the school record for six touchdowns. Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba declared himself an FBS Bowl record with 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s a combination of great minds and great players,” Stroud said. “…that was the funniest thing [played] in my life.”

“Maybe in some places, the 11-2 and Rose Bowl win was a good year. Not in Ohio State,” coach Ryan Day said.

The result shows that both are true. Combined, the lingering Rose Bowl smell, feel and look is a point of explanation for Ohio State’s ultimately substandard season. However, it also became the starting point for Stroud and Smith-Njigba.

“That’s the goal,” Day said of his star offensive player’s springboard. “We talked about it.”

Right now, the two biggest Buckeye weapons are the 2022 Rat Pack, inseparable companions who play with each other. Stroud is the favorite for the Heisman Trophy and is 2-1 going into the season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Outside the top 10 is Smith-Njigba. Arguably the best receiver in this game is 40-1. Between them is another emerging superstar, as Oregon State running back TreVeyon Henderson goes 20-1 into the year.

“I don’t want to think about it, but I want to,” said Stroud, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting to become a 2021 finalist. “If I said I didn’t, I’d be lying.”

Stroud ranks second in school history in yardage (4,435) and touchdowns (44). Henderson averaged 6.8 yards per carry, amassing nearly 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns, and had some great one-game performances.

Playing in the shadows of Chris Olaf and Garrett Wilson, Smith-Njiba set school records for catches (95) and yards (1,606). Wilson and Olaf combined for just 25 touchdown receptions on their way to the NFL. In the Rose Bowl, Smith Njiba could be a goodmonth for another player.

“I think I’m the best, so I have to work like this,” he said.

Buckeyes everywhere can dream because this is Ohio State’s best team since 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but at Ohio State, it’s worth noting. That team was good enough to win it all three years ago, but was derailed by Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

It took Buckeye Nation a long time to feel good about himself again. The COVID-19-impacted 2020 team played just eight games and was defeated 52-24 by Alabama in the Orange Bowl semifinals. Last season, Oregon’s loss was Ohio State’s first home loss to a top-five nonconference opponent since Oklahoma in 2017.

The latest non-conference challenge is pending. In the highlight of Week 1, No. 5 Notre Dame came to The Shoe with a 14.5-point deficit.

The loss at Michigan last November marked another first — Day’s first in the Big Ten in his 24th conference game. Ohio State’s teams lead the nation offensively. The problem is easy to identify: Defenses—especially run defenses—are flexible. The defense’s 3.68 yards per rush allowed was Ohio State’s second-highest average in a decade. In that Rose Bowl game, Utah tied a Program Bowl record with 45 points.

Most disturbing was Ohio State’s second-half rowing out of the Eastern Conference Top 10 crown by Michigan Stadium. In fact, the most disturbing thing is that for the first time since 1891, defenses have given up at least 40 points in back-to-back games.

Almost everything at Ohio State has to be seen through a relative lens. Stroud has recently advocated for revenue sharing in this age of names, images and likenesses. Here’s a growing junior driving a Bentley as part of his zero deal.

While on vacation in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, he expressed surprise at being recognized.

“It’s kind of cool, but it’s also scary at the same time,” he said. “I’m not used to people staring at me.”

Never mind a lot of people staring at me. After all, Stroud regularly performed in front of 100,000 people. Ohio State is one of the top 10 universities in the nation, with more than 500,000 living alumni.

“I just want to accumulate a few days,” Stroud added. “If I think about Heisman, I’m just going beyond myself and putting too much pressure on myself.”

If the defense doesn’t improve, Stroud, Smith-Njiba and Hender Sen may just have carried the Buckeyes by outsmarting the others. In this day and age, this is almost entirely reasonable. After all, Alabama won the national championship in the 2020 playoffs with the third-worst overall defense of all time ( at least since 1936).

Smells like another championship game?

“We don’t have to prove anyone wrong,” Stroud concluded. “We have to prove ourselves right.”



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