ATLANTA — A little more than a month ago, C.J. Stroud stood in front of a room full of reporters and took responsibility.
Ohio State had just lost to Michigan for the second straight time, and for the first in Columbus in more than 20 years. Stroud, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist the past two seasons, threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns but was also intercepted twice that afternoon.
After the game, a 45-23 victory for the Wolverines, Stroud shouldered the burden of a monumental and crushing defeat, saying things like “I don’t think one game defines us” and “the game is on me, I really gotta do more” and “after 365 days of everybody laughing, this is the one we wanted.
“People are going to say I never won The Game, and I understand. People are going to say I never won a Big Ten championship, and I understand,” Stroud added, still wearing his sweaty headband and Nike dri-fit undershirt as he spoke honestly.
“When it comes to that, I just have to eat it, man. It’s life.”
At that moment, there was only an outside shot that the Buckeyes would make the College Football Playoff. And Stroud spoke as a quarterback who might have just played his final game for Ohio State. There’s always a chance that any projected top NFL Draft pick could opt out of a non-CFP bowl game.
But now, Stroud and the Buckeyes have something rare on their hands: a second chance. USC’s loss in the Pac-12 Championship Game allowed Ohio State to slip into the No. 4 spot of the four-team playoff field. And on New Year’s Eve this Saturday night, Stroud and his team will face defending national champion Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
It’s been a whirlwind month emotionally for the Buckeyes. After the Michigan game, Stroud and his teammate got back to work, partly to prepare for whatever came next but also to distract themselves. He also tried to avoid reading articles about his team and seeing stuff on social media. But these days, no matter how hard anyone tries, it’s hard to escape.
“People had the audacity to call me and tell me what people [were saying] so I do hear it,” Stroud said at media day on Thursday. “It is what it is. It comes with the nature of the beast. You can’t accept the good and not accept the bad.
“For me, I think if you cut on the film, you watch the tape, I think I really try to do everything that I could to win games in my career. If that means I didn’t get it done, it is what it is. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I’m blessed to be where I’m at. I’m going to keep moving forward and learn from it. I think we deserve to be here regardless of what happened that day, but we moved on.”
One of the more intriguing elements of Saturday’s game will be if Ohio State has truly moved on from Michigan, and how it will respond to Georgia. Ryan Day said Thursday that his players have an “edge” about them this week and that Stroud “has had an unbelievable week of practice.”
“I’ve just been impressed with how he’s handled himself over the last few weeks,” said Day, who also called his quarterback a “resilient” and “special young man.”
Some Bulldogs can speak to that, too. Cornerback Kelee Ringo, whose primary role will be shutting down top receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., struck up a relationship with Stroud when they were in high school, meeting at The Opening and again at the Army All-American bowl. Stroud was actually recruited by Kirby Smart, and Ringo hoped he would come to Georgia.
Even though Stroud went in a different direction, Ringo has followed his friend’s career and saw what he said in the post-Michigan press conference.
“You can’t have anything but a lot of respect for that,” Ringo said. “As a quarterback who is willing to sit down and look in the mirror and tell his team something like that, you know somebody like that is going to be hungry. And I feel like he’s definitely going to want more out of himself [in this game].”
Stroud is an alpha dog, a great interview and a mature soul who has been through a lot in his young life. He will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Ohio State history no matter how Saturday pans out. In two seasons, he’s thrown for 7,775 yards and 81 touchdowns, numbers that fall second in the record books only to former quarterback J.T. Barrett. He’s a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year and has made two trips to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Statistics aside, Saturday presents an interesting moment for his college legacy. In the biggest test of his career, Stroud could be the quarterback to lead the charge in taking down mighty Georgia. He could lead Ohio State to the national championship game — which ironically could be a rematch against Michigan.
It’s a pivotal juncture for Stroud, and of course for Ohio State and Day, too. And the outcome, whatever it is, will answer questions about the state of the program, while likely posing some more.
But the quarterback is taking everything in stride. He sees Saturday purely as a chance to salvage a season for a team that has a “championship or bust” mindset.
“I don’t think I have anything to prove,” Stroud said. “I think I’ve got an opportunity to go out there and play with my brothers again. And I think for me, that’s a blessing on its own.
“I don’t want to prove anybody wrong. I just want to prove the people who believe in me and the people who love me right. And of course, I want to prove myself right because I believe in myself.”
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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