That didn’t look like a meaningless bowl game.
The Rose Bowl Game – the “Granddaddy of Them All” – provided a reminder that it doesn’t matter how the teams got there. No. 7 Ohio State beat No. 10 Utah 48-45 in one of the most-entertaining bowl games of all time.
Sure, it comes in the College Football Playoff era in an age where the value of New Year’s Day Six Bowl games is being questioned because of opt-outs. Ohio State had several key players out, including receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. The Utes, who were in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference when the Buckeyes made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 1920, were first-time participants in Pasadena, Calif.
Both teams played like they wanted to be there. This edition of the Rose Bowl had everything, much like the 52-49 shootout between Penn State and USC in 2017.
Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba turned in arguably the greatest Rose Bowl performance of all time. He finished with 15 receptions for 347 yards and three TDs. Smith-Njigba had six catches of 30 yards or more and submitted his name into the early 2022 Heisman Trophy conversation. USC’s Keyshawn Johnson previously held the record with 216 yards.
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Unless, of course, quarterback C.J. Stroud is that player. Stroud shook off the loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale with a Rose Bowl-record 573 passing yards and six TDs. That broke the record of 473 yards by USC’s Sam Darnold.
You can’t say they didn’t want to be there. Stroud and Smith-Njigba used the opportunity to increase their value, and they will reap in benefits from NIL to the NFL.
Those records were a product of a remarkable comeback, too. Utah came to play. The Utes matched Ohio State with 324 total yards in the first half and built a 35-21 lead at halftime. Micah Bernard made a ridiculous catch in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Britain Covey had a 97-yard kickoff return for a TD. Cameron Rising took a fourth-and-1 sneak for a 62-yard TD.
Ohio State’s much-maligned defense tightened up in the second half, however. Freshman Marvin Harrison’s third TD reception tied the game at 38 with 10:12 remaining, and Smith-Njigba scored a go-ahead TD with 4:22 left. With Rising out with a concussion, it looked like this game was over.
That’s when Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, who had 0 career completions, led a game-tying drive capped with a TD pass to Dalton Kincaid. The game did end in anticlimactic fashion with a Noah Ruggles’ 19-yard field goal, but the point was made.
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The Rose Bowl delivered one day after both College Football Playoff semifinals were duds. Utah lost the game, but the program will build on its first Pac-12 championship under Kyle Whittingham. Ohio State finished 11-2 under third-year coach Ryan Day and will be right back in the top five of the 2022 preseason rankings. Had Ohio State lost its bowl game after losing to Michigan, something that hasn’t happened since 2011, there would have been more than enough exasperation on Columbus radio Sunday.
Both coaching staffs will point to this game as a launch point for however next season turns out, too.
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Say what you want about the Rose Bowl’s place in the college football bowl structure. The devotion to tradition remains a stumbling block in College Football Playoff expansion given the Jan. 1 date. The easiest solution might be to make the hallowed venue part of the championship game rotation, but that remains an ongoing conversation. At minimum, this was a reminder of what a good quartefinal matchup might look like when the playoff expands.
It was entertainment at the highest level, and Ohio State and Utah delivered a matchup that will be on the short list of all-time great bowl games. Sometimes you don’t have to search for meaning when the competition speaks for itself.
Doesn’t that sound like something your Granddaddy would say?