For three quarters it looked like Ohio State was going to silence its doubters and head to the national championship game a heavy favorite, but familiar defensive miscues once again did the Buckeyes in as another late game defensive collapse ends Ohio State season in brutal fashion.
Ten Observations from a game that will sting the Ohio State fan base for quite a while….
1. My two big keys heading into this game were, one, Ohio State ignoring the “soft” “7on7 team” narratives and not trying to go overboard in proving some subjective “toughness” point. Air it out, keep the ball in the hands of your best players. And, two, responding to adversity when it inevitably hit with the Dawgs being such an explosive team on both sides of the ball.
The offense and playcalling were pretty much exactly what they needed to be. It has been a while since the Georgia defense was carved up like that, but despite a really good third quarter, the defense once again came up small in big moments and was unable to consistently respond to UGA surges.
2. Everyone would have taken a 28-24 lead at halftime, but even so, the first half defensive performance was unnerving to say the least. Other than a bit of a gift INT by Stetson Bennett, the UGA offense did pretty much whatever it wanted to do, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry and throwing for nearly 200 yards. That wasn’t going to be able to hold up in the second half without turning Bennett over a couple of times.
3. But then the defense, for a few moments, finally did what it has failed to do in big games, come up with key stops at key times to squash any UGA momentum. Unfortunately that only lasted one quarter and the fourth quarter saw more of the same with untimely miscues, blown coverage, and a secondary that seems to lack players that can win one-on-one battles.
4. Just how important was Xavier Johnson to this team? Unbelievable. He came up huge early in the season against Notre Dame and once again tonight with what would have maybe been the biggest play of the game for the Buckeyes (if things had gone the other way late in the 4th) answering a 17-0 UGA run with a touchdown down the seam. Great play design and great throw, but the reason that play was able to be so effective is that Johnson is such a versatile kid. He’s half running back, half receiver, making that play/catch is a lot easier for someone like X than it would have been for Miyan Williams or Dallan Hayden.
5. The real narrative on C.J. Stroud’s legacy should be that of a quarterback who was repeatedly let down by his defense in big games. Stroud was, once again, the best player on the field tonight and even moved the Buckeyes into field goal range at the end of the game to give his team one last chance to win a game it mostly controlled in the second half.
6. After a great third quarter by the defense, the Buckeyes lost the chess match and the composure match badly in the fourth quarter. Lathan Ransom’s slip was a bit of a microcosm of this defense in recent seasons. While the initial instinct might be to just chalk that one up to Ransom, the Buckeyes were in man-free on that play, leaving Ransom in man coverage on Georgia’s fastest wide receiver and while there was free safety help, getting over the top of that was going to be a non-starter for just about any free safety in college football, and for all free safeties on the Ohio State roster. With a two score lead early in the fourth quarter, you needed to be completely safe-guarded against vertical shots.
7. I thought Ryan Day called a great game and it’s hard to nitpick things offensively, especially after Marvin Harrison Jr. was knocked out of the game. I didn’t love the calls from the UGA 30 on the very final drive, but it is what it is, you can justify an off tackle run there to try and catch UGA off guard and make the FG more manageable and credit the UGA defense for utilizing pressure to blow up the last two pass attempts. But Ryan Day was aggressive as he said he would be and it resulted in the most successful performance we’ve seen an offense have against this UGA defense in a while.
8. Unless I see a different angle of things, it’s hard to justify the overturn of the targeting call on Harrison, though the TV production did us no favors with missing the explanation and giving us a pretty thin group of angles. But it certainly appeared to be contact to the head and Harrison clearly going into concussion protocol would certainly justify that. Perhaps Ohio State still only gets three there and clearly wouldn’t have had Harrison the rest of the way anyway, but it’s going to be one of those what ifs that Ohio State fans will be talking about for a long time.
9. Ohio State leads the world in untimely injuries to star players in the middle of big games. Not a complaint, not an excuse, but this seems to happen way more often than usual to this program.
10. Whoever yelled at Kirby Smart in the headset to get a timeout on the OSU fake punt sure deserves a raise. A lot of plays down the stretch that impacted this game, but the one that didn’t happen is right near the top of the list as well.
11. Ohio State is going to, once again, go into an off-season with major questions about improving the defense. It won’t result in a new coordinator this time (though perhaps a new position coach or two) but the way this season ended hasn’t made anyone in Columbus feel better about the defensive side of the football.