It’s the smell that CJ Stroud got. Well, that included the multi-sensory attack that was his first Rose Bowl.
Talk all you like about the rose and its many awards — sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains, a parade that almost replaces the game itself, Keith Jackson’s voice soaring in an ethereal cloud above everything — there’s always that moment for newcomers.
For the Ohio State junior quarterback, it was, well, everything.
“I’d say roses, that’s what it’s all about,” Stroud said. “It’s unique. It smells good. It looks good. It feels good. The best grass I’ve ever played on in my life. It’s just everything I expected it to be. That’s why the Rose Bowl is special.”
That of a boy who grew up within an hour of Pasadena, California. It’s one thing to see the Grandaddy of ‘Em All on TV; it’s another thing to experience the uniqueness of the game.
In addition to the sights, colors and smells, for the No. 2 Buckeyes where the 2021 season ended and the 2022 season began.
Anyone who witnessed that game on Jan. 1 could still have their heads spinning from Ohio State’s 48-45 win over Utah. Stroud threw for a school record of 573 yards and a school record equaling six touchdowns. Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba announced himself with 15 catches for an FBS bowl-record 347 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
“It was a combination of great minds and great players,” said Stroud. “… That was the best thing I did [had playing] in my life.”
“Maybe some places, 11-2 and a Rose Bowl win is a good year. It’s not Ohio State,” said coach Ryan Day.
The result turned out to be both true. Combined, Rose Bowl’s lingering smell, feel, and look accounted for what was ultimately a subpar season in the state of Ohio. However, it also served as the starting point for Stroud and Smith-Njigba.
“That was the goal that went in,” Day said of that springboard for his attacking players. “We’ve been talking about going in.”
Now the two biggest Buckeye weapons are the Rat Pack of 2022, inseparable friends who play with each other. According to Caesars Sportsbook, Stroud is the Heisman Trophy favorite with 2-1 chances going into the season. Just outside the top 10 on that list is Smith-Njigba; arguably the best receiver of the game sits at 40-1. Between them is another burgeoning superstar as OSU TreVeyon Henderson enters the year 20-1.
“I don’t want to think about it, but I do,” said Stroud, who finished fourth in Heisman’s vote as a finalist for 2021. “I’d be lying if I said no.”
Stroud threw for the second most yards (4,435) and touchdowns (44) in school history. Henderson averaged 6.8 yards per carry, amassed nearly 1,600 combined yards and 19 touchdowns with some exceptional performances in one game.
Playing in the shadow of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Smith-Njigba set school records for catches (95) and yards received (1606). Wilson and Olave collectively made just 25 touchdown catches en route to the NFL. In the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba had what might be a good month for another player.
“I think I’m the best, so I have to work like that,” he said.
Buckeyes everywhere can afford to dream, as this is Ohio State’s best team since 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but in Ohio State, it’s remarkable. That team three years ago was good enough to win it all, but was derailed by Clemson in a semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
It took so long for Buckeye Nation to feel so good about itself again. The 2020 COVID-19-stricken team played just eight games and was knocked out by Alabama, 52-24, in the Orange Bowl semifinals. Last season, Oregon’s loss was Ohio State’s first to a Power Five nonconference opponent at home since Oklahoma in 2017.
The latest non-conference challenge awaits. no. 5 Notre Dame comes to The Shoe as a 14.5 point underdog in the hottest match of Week 1.
The Michigan loss last November marked another first – Day’s first loss to the Big Ten in his 24th conference game. That Ohio State team led the nation in total offense. The problem was easy to identify: the defense – especially the barrel defense – was pliable. The defense allowed 3.68 yards per rush was Ohio’s second-highest average in a decade. In that Rose Bowl, Utah tied a program bowl-game record with 45 runs scored.
Most disturbingly, Ohio State raced a boat out of Michigan Stadium in the second half to drop the Big Ten East crown. Really, most alarmingly, the defense had to forgo at least 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1891.
Almost everything in the state of Ohio needs to be looked at through a relative lens. Stroud recentlyin this age of name, image and likeness. This from an up and coming junior who drives a Bentley around as part of his NIL deal.
During a vacation to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, he expressed his surprise when he was recognized.
“It’s pretty cool, but scary at the same time,” he said. “I’m not used to people staring at me.”
It doesn’t matter that there is a lot of staring. After all, Stroud routinely plays for 100,000 people. Ohio State ranks among the top 10 universities in the nation with more than 500,000 living alumni.
“I just want to stack days,” Stroud added. “When I think about the Heisman, I walk past myself and put too much pressure on myself.”
If the defense doesn’t improve, Stroud, Smith-Njigba and Henderson may just have to carry the Buckeyes by beating everyone else. And that makes almost perfect sense these days. After all, Alabama claimed the playoff in 2020 with theever to win a national championship (since at least 1936).
Does it smell like another title run?
“We don’t have to prove anyone wrong,” Stroud concluded. “We have to prove ourselves right.”