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Jaxon Smith-Njigba turned in the best receiving performance in bowl game history as No. 6 Ohio State stormed back to beat No. 11 Utah, 48-45, in the Rose Bowl.
Smith-Njigba had 347 receiving yards and three touchdowns and what we all thought could be the game-winning score in an incredible throw-and-catch from C.J. Stroud with less than five minutes to go.
JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA FOR THE LEAD!!
THIS MAN CAN'T BE STOPPED pic.twitter.com/AgDWhFSas6
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2022
But it wasn't. The TD came after Utah QB Cam Rising had to leave the game after his head hit the turf while he was getting sacked. Rising attempted to throw the ball away as he was swarmed by Ohio State defenders and his body immediately tensed up after his head hit the ground.
Rising was able to walk off the field after he was examined by trainers but went into the team’s injury tent and didn’t return to the game. He was replaced by walk-on QB Bryson Barnes, a player who had never thrown a pass in his college career.
Barnes promptly led Utah down the field thanks to a couple of Ohio State pass interference penalties and hit Dalton Kincaid for a TD pass with less than two minutes left.
Ohio State's offense had plenty of time, however. Stroud hit Smith-Njigba twice more on the Buckeyes' final drive and Noah Ruggles kicked a 19-yard field goal for the win with nine seconds left.
Smith-Njigba’s 347 yards on 15 catches are the most in the history of college football bowl games. He breaks the previous record of 308 yards held by Hawaii’s Jason Rivers in the 2006 Hawaii Bowl. Rivers had been the only player to have more than 300 receiving yards in a bowl game.
Stroud threw for 573 yards and became the first Ohio State quarterback to throw for over 500 yards in a single game. His yardage total is the third-most in bowl history behind only former Marshall QB Byron Leftwich and former BYU QB Ty Detmer. They each threw for 576 yards in a bowl game.
Smith-Njigba became primary target with Wilson, Olave opt outs
Ohio State boasted the best trio of wide receivers in 2021 with Smith Njigba, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Each of the three had over 900 yards receiving and Stroud was a Heisman finalist.
Wilson and Olave announced before the Rose Bowl that they would be opting out of the game to prep for the draft. That allowed Smith-Njigba — the player with the most catches and yards among the three — to move up as the undisputed No. 1 receiver. And he did not disappoint.
Smith-Njigba finishes the 2021 season with an Ohio State-record 95 catches.
The absences of Olave and Wilson also allowed other players to step up. Marvin Harrison Jr. — the son of the Pro Football Hall of Famer — entered the game with five catches for 68 yards over the entire season. He had six catches for 71 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday night.
Stroud finished 37-of-46 passing with six touchdowns and an interception at the start of the third quarter. That was Ohio State’s second turnover in a Utah end zone; Smith-Njigba fumbled inside the five in the second quarter and Utah recovered for a touchback. The Ohio State offense racked up 683 yards of total offense.
Utah took early lead
The Utes beat up Ohio State to start the game and took a 14-0 lead. They held the lead through a wild sequence in the second quarter that included six touchdowns in less than eight minutes.
Ohio State cut Utah’s lead to 14-7 when Harrison caught his first TD of the day 43 seconds into the second quarter. That was followed by three touchdowns in 50 seconds five minutes later and the flurry was capped by a 62-yard TD run by Rising on a fourth down that gave Utah a 35-21 halftime lead.
Rising was 17-of-22 passing for 214 yards and had 11 carries for 92 yards. While Utah was leaking oil in the second half thanks to its inability to stop Ohio State’s offense, his late absence might have affected Utah’s time management on Ohio State’s game-winning drive.
The Buckeyes got to the Utah 35 with less than a minute left. The Utes had all three timeouts and elected to not use any of them once Ohio State got inside the 25 with less than 40 seconds left. That allowed Ohio State to run the clock down and let Ruggles kick the game-winner with less than 10 seconds left.
There was no guarantee, of course, that Utah could have had a chance to tie the game if it had used its timeouts. But the decision to not call them put the game solely on a wheezing defense to prevent Ohio State from scoring.