Then Stroud smiled and told reporters: “I’ll see y’all on Saturday.”
Stroud proved his point at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He delivered the kind of performance that’s necessary to conquer Georgia’s mighty defense. All night, Stroud made plays out of nothing. The last time he did it, on a 17-yard run through the middle of Georgia’s defense, it put Ohio State in position to beat Georgia with a field goal.
It wasn’t enough. The Buckeyes missed the 50-yard field-goal try. Georgia won its College Football Playoff semifinal 42-41. In the end, Stroud couldn’t join the list of quarterbacks to beat Georgia with outstanding efforts: LSU’s Joe Burrow and the Alabama trio of Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young.
Stroud passed for 348 yards on 34 attempts with four touchdowns. He slipped away from pass rushers and delivered pinpoint passes. Stroud ran like he’s never run before, with eight rushes for 70 yards (excluding sack yardage).
The Bulldogs overcame Stroud’s great performance by scoring TDs on their final two possessions, then stopping Ohio State on three consecutive plays before the missed field-goal attempt.
“Ohio State probably deserved to win the game, but we didn’t quit,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on the field soon after the final whistle.
Credit to the Bulldogs. They absorbed Ohio State’s best shot and stayed on their feet. They were down by 14 points in the first half. Georgia regained the lead before halftime, only to give it back in 49 seconds later. The Bulldogs trailed OSU by two touchdowns after three quarters.
They overcame it all and now will play TCU for the national championship Jan. 9 in Southern California.
“If you would have told me that when we were down, I would say you are crazy,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said.
He wasn’t the only one thinking that. The Bulldogs hadn’t stopped Ohio State much for three quarters. But they stiffened to hold OSU to a field goal late in the third quarter and again with 2:43 to play. Bennett passed for a 73-yard TD to Arian Smith, who was wide open after a Buckeyes defender fell. Bennett engineered another scoring drive that ended with a 10-yard TD pass to Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds to play.
Ohio State had two timeouts and a quarterback who’d been virtually unstoppable.
“I knew that we could do it, and I tried my hardest to get us down there,” Stroud said. “I got to maybe split somebody else, make another move, get a little more. But I tried my hardest. I left my heart out there on that field.
“Obviously, it’s something that’s heavy on my heart. It’s going to be tough.”
Stroud shouldn’t have any regrets. He made Georgia’s defense look bad, which hardly ever happens. We’ve heard a lot about that unit remaining elite after losing five starters in the first round of the last NFL draft. Less was said about the Buckeyes staying elite on offense after wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were picked 10th and 11th in the same draft.
There also was little drop-off when Stroud took over from Justin Fields two years ago. He had Ohio State’s offense operating at a high level this year despite injuries. Star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba hardly played this season. TreVeyon Henderson, a freshman All-American in 2021, played this season with a fracture and torn ligament in his left foot before having surgery after the loss to Michigan.
The Buckeyes have built an offensive machine that rivals Georgia’s assembly line on defense. The pregame consensus seemed to be that they have a lot of good players, but the Bulldogs are tougher. Smart’s defense is accustomed to bullying opponents along the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter, a one-man force, pushes the middle while his teammates swarm the quarterback.
It didn’t work that way against the Buckeyes. Georgia’s pass rush got to him for four sacks but, more often, Stroud had a lot of time to throw. That put pressure on Georgia’s defensive backs, who didn’t hold up well.
Stroud was unbothered in the pocket during Ohio State’s first touchdown drive. He passed to Marvin Harrison for 24 yards on the first play. Three plays later, Stroud had time to signal to Harrison to break off his route before throwing to him for a 31-yard score. OSU scored another TD on its second drive. Stroud wasn’t pressured while passing to Harrison for a 24-yard gain that set up a 2-yard rushing TD by Miyan Williams, who carried Bulldogs into the end zone.
After Georgia scored 17 consecutive points to regain the lead 1:44 before halftime, Stroud directed a four-play, 75-yard TD drive that took just 49 seconds. He ended that march with a 37-yard TD pass to Xavier Johnson. It was too easy for Stroud. The Bulldogs never got near him.
The Buckeyes scored again on their first possession after halftime for a 35-24 lead. Stroud stood unhurried in the pocket and completed passes for 25 yards to Julian Fleming and 18 yards to Emeka Egbuka. Then Stroud faked a handoff left, rolled right and lofted a pass to Egbuka for a 10-yard touchdown.
That was one of several plays where Stroud showed that he can make throws when he’s not standing in a clean pocket. He completed two passes under pressure during OSU’s third TD drive, first on a 13-yard pass to Fleming and then on a 16-yard TD to Harrison.
Georgia was behind 21-7. Stroud kept making plays, even after star receiver Harrison left the game because of an injury. The Bulldogs kept coming, even when it seemed as if their quest for back-to-back national titles would end here.
“I don’t know if we are ready for TCU,” Smart said. “From what I just saw, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
TCU’s Max Duggan is a tough quarterback. He’s not as good as Stroud, though. Ohio State’s quarterback did everything he could to beat the Bulldogs. It was a great performance that just wasn’t enough.