In a Rose Bowl Game that will live for the ages, No. 6 Ohio State came from behind to pull off an epic 48-45 win over No. 11 Utah on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California. This incredible, wild game saw Ohio State's offense rewrite the record books and come back to win the game in the fourth quarter after trailing nearly the entire evening. OSU clinched its victory with a 56-yard drive in the game's final minute that set up a go-ahead 19-yard field goal with 9 seconds left.
Utah took control early, jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Then both teams combined for six touchdowns in the second quarter, setting the scene for what would be a wild back-and-forth affair over the game's final 30 minutes.
However, it wasn't until Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud hit wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a 30-yard touchdown with 4:22 left to play that the Buckeyes took their first lead of the game at 45-38. It was the third time Stroud and Smith-Njigba hooked up for a score, and it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Stroud finished with 573 yards passing and six TDs. Smith-Njigba caught 15 balls for 346 yards and three TDs, setting the record for most yards receiving in FBS bowl game history along with Ohio State single-season records for most yards receiving and most receptions. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., who took on a starting role for the first time this season due to Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave opting out, caught six passes for 71 yards and three scores of his own.
For Utah, the game slipped away in the fourth quarter when QB Cam Rising left the game after suffering what looked to be a concussion. Rising's head hit the turf after being sacked, and he lay motionless on his back for a few minutes before getting up and walking off the field on his own. His backup, Bryson Barnes, led a game-tying touchdown drive in the final minutes, before the game-deciding field goal. Rising finished the day with 214 yards passing and two touchdowns while also leading the Utes in rushing with 92 yards and a score.
Here are five takeaways from a Rose Bowl I'll never forget.
1. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is incredible ...
Honestly, I'm not sure how he was able to do it all night, but despite the fact he was the biggest threat on the Ohio State offense, Smith-Njigba kept finding ways to get open play after play. How else do you catch 15 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns in a game, setting all kinds of records in the process?
The volume and production are just numbers. Most notable from the performance was the skill Smith-Njigba showed. His third touchdown of the night -- the one that gave Ohio State its first lead -- was a spectacular over-the-shoulder grab on what was also a picture-perfect throw by Stroud. Smith-Njigba's 346 yards receiving were nearly 100 more than the previous Ohio State single-game record, which was set in 1995 by Terry Glenn vs. Pittsburgh (253).
Even more impressive is how he bounced back from what could have been a tragic mistake. In the first half, when both the Utes and Buckeyes were trading touchdowns every 30 seconds of so -- seriously, there were three touchdowns scored in a 30-second period of game time -- Smith-Njigba caught a pass up the seam and broke loose in the secondary. He was chased from behind by Utah's Clark Phillips, who punched the ball free from his right arm and bounced into the end zone, where Utah recovered the fumble. It was the kind of mistake that might have broken some players, but Smith-Njigba quickly got past it and just kept on balling.
There's talent and there's mental strength. Every once in a while, a player comes along with both, and those are the ones who are truly special. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is in that class.
2. ... but he's just the tip of Ohio State's iceberg
I don't know how Ohio State manages to produce so many incredible receivers, but it doesn't seem fair. Remember, the Buckeyes were without Wilson and Olave in this game. Both could be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft this spring. And yet, it didn't matter! While Ohio State's offense looked out of sync to start, it was off to the races once it figured things out. Harrison stepped in for his first feature role of the season and was spectacular, scoring three touchdowns and displaying the kind of route-running and footwork that quickly reminded you of his father.
Julian Fleming caught five passes for 35 yards before leaving the game in the second half with what appeared to be a right shoulder injury. And then there was Emeka Egbuka, who only caught three passes for 46 yards, but one of the receptions was a beautiful 30-yard grab down the sideline in which he just managed to get a toe down to complete the catch. Egbuka was also a monster on special teams, returning seven kicks for 218 yards. His longest was a 75-yard return, but his most important was the 33-yard return he had in the final minutes to set the Buckeyes up with excellent field position on their final drive of the game.
3. Stroud set a record, too
Stroud's 573 yards passing was a single-game record for Ohio State, breaking Dwayne Haskins' mark of 499 yards set in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern. Ohio State finished with 683 yards of offense and averaged 10.2 yards per play. It was an incredible display and one that makes one wonder what might have been for the Buckeyes if they had a better defense this season.
4. Rising's injury changed the game
Yes, Barnes led a game-tying touchdown drive and played very well for somebody thrust into an unexpected position. Still, losing Rising seemed to take the air out of Utah for just long enough to let Ohio State seize control of the game. Every time Ohio State threw a punch to get back in the fight, Rising and the Utah offense responded. When he left, they let a few Ohio State punches go unanswered. And while it's a horrible break for Rising and Utah, it's also somewhat poetic.
Rising did not begin the season as Utah's starting quarterback. That was Charlie Brewer, who started both of Utah's losses to San Diego State and BYU. In the loss to San Diego State, Rising replaced Brewer, threw three touchdowns and turned the entire season around. Without Rising, Utah doesn't win the Pac-12 and reach the Rose Bowl. And it didn't win the Rose Bowl without him, either.
5. Don't just hand the Pac-12 South to USC
I know there's plenty of excitement surrounding USC now that Lincoln Riley has taken over the program, but this Utes team isn't going just to step aside and let the Trojans have the division back. Kyle Whittingham's program has the culture and work ethic to ensure that they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12 for a while. This might have been Utah's first Rose Bowl appearance, but it won't be its last.