C.J. Stroud was nearly heroic, carrying a banged-up offense on his back and playing the game of his life in a playoff classic.
But the Ohio State defense once again caved, and a 14-point fourth-quarter lead was lost in a 42-41 loss College Football Playoff loss to Georgia.
The usually reliable Noah Ruggles missed badly on a 50-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the Buckeyes to the championship game, and now Ohio State enters a heartbreaking offseason.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday's game:
CJ Stroud was amazing, and his draft stock just soared
Stroud was sensational while surrounded by backups. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. But the "quarterback who won't run" scampered for 34 yards and skipped around the pocket with great cool. His runs were into traffic and with purpose. His throws were accurate.
And he did all this without a running game, without tight end Cade Stover for most of the game, and without star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. for the fourth quarter.
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There were wrongheaded doubts about Stroud's toughness, probably because he is so quiet and steady. There were more well-founded doubts about his willingness to run, but he tossed away those on Saturday – though he might want to learn to slide before he suits up in an NFL game.
Certainly, NFL scouts had to like what they saw in a complete quarterback who nearly won a big one all by himself.
"What this guy did and the way he competed in the second half, all those things coming at him, I can't say enough," said coach Ryan Day. "I'm so proud of the way he played. He's not the only one, but he's sitting right here, and he's the quarterback of this team. The way he attacked this game, I couldn't be any prouder of how he did that."
$2 million later, the defense isn't close to being fixed
The Ohio State offense likely gave some dirty looks to the defense on the flight home. Ohio State scored 41 points on the supposedly unbeatable defending champs and held a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter when it all came apart.
The Buckeyes discarded a zone defense that was solid in the third quarter and got diced in man coverage. Big plays again were the backbreaker, as Georgia's scoring efforts often came without resistance.
First-year coordinator Jim Knowles, hired at a cost of $2 million per year, can't claim the reason is talent, for there are four- and five-star players all over the field. The Buckeyes adjusted well after a terrible first half, then folded in the fourth quarter. Scheme and consistency are missing.
The high-flying Stroud years have been wasted, and defense is to blame.
Xavier Johnson should return
All-purpose player Xavier Johnson again was a factor, playing running back, receiver and kick returner. He's versatile and smart ... but he also went through the team's senior day ceremony.
While Johnson hasn't said for sure if he's leaving or returning for a sixth season, he's not NFL material or good enough to start for Ohio State.
Xavier has BEEN nice! I remember being so confused why he didn’t have a scholarship to a major D1 when he first got to campus
— Jordan Fuller (@j_fuller4) January 1, 2023
But he could continue to add wrinkles to the Buckeyes' creative offense. On Saturday, he had six carries for 28 yards and three receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown. He was the fifth-string (and lower if Evan Pryor hadn't missed the season) running back but was on the field late in the biggest game of the year and threw a key pass-protection block on one of Stroud's key runs.
Nobody knows what is a legal hit anymore
Harrison left the game late in the third quarter after a vicious hit in the end zone. On the field, officials penalized Georgia's Javon Bullard for targeting and gave the Buckeyes, who were leading 35-24, a first down at the 3.
But as the second-best player in the game (behind Stroud) was woozy, being evaluated for concussion-like symptoms and having his helmet taken away, replay officials overturned the call and ruled there was no foul. So instead of another touchdown, the Buckeyes kicked a field goal to make the score 38-24 with 31 seconds left in the quarter.
Day argued with officials and "was told it wasn't targeting because he wasn't hit in the head." Whether he was hit with Bullard's helmet or shoulder, he was a defenseless receiver waiting for a floating pass when his head was clearly the target of a flying Bulldog. That's a penalty. If it's not, no parent should let their kids play football.
It was a game-changing overturn, and on the heels of another perplexing no-targeting call in the Michigan game earlier in the day, it left many confused.
Needed in 2023: A running game
A championship team with a 14-point fourth-quarter lead doesn't feel it has to keep winging the ball all over the yard to win. But Ohio State has little faith in its ability to run, so that's what happened. In the end, that meant no clock was eaten up in the traditional manner.
The Buckeyes, once Stroud's scrambles are removed, finished with 85 yards on 20 rushes.
Yes, the absences of TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams (only three carries on Saturday) hurt, but the other backs were highly recruited, too, and the Buckeyes' inability to build a stable rushing attack this season put too much pressure on Stroud to perform. Ohio State went from pass-first to pass-only as the season went on.
The personnel strategy was baffling, too. Against Maryland, Dallan Hayden was the breakout star. Then he barely played against Michigan while linebacker Chip Trayanum got the carries. On Saturday, Hayden had nine carries and Trayanum had none. And Johnson, who is primarily a receiver, carried six times.
Next year, with Kyle McCord or Devin Brown presumably not up to Stroud's level, a more balanced offense could be crucial. Air McCord doesn't feel like the answer.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State football loses to Georgia: 5 things we learned about OSU