The pressure and opportunity that come with a second chance

SINCE HIGH SCHOOL, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud has kept a routine after every game, no matter the outcome.

“For an hour, when the families are mingling and eating, he won’t eat, he won’t really talk, until he’s reviewed all the footage of that [game] film,” Stroud’s mother, Kimberly, told ESPN. “I’m like, ‘Son, why don’t you just put that away?’ [He replies], ‘No, this is what I have to do.'”

By late afternoon Nov. 26, Stroud had started his painstaking probe of Ohio State’s 45-23 home loss to Michigan. The Buckeyes hadn’t lost to the Wolverines at Ohio Stadium since 2000, also the last time they had dropped consecutive games to their archrival.

Stroud, born in 2001, had 349 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, after passing for 394 yards and two scores in last year’s defeat at Michigan Stadium. He wasn’t the reason Ohio State lost either game, but he understood what the results meant.

Shortly after this year’s Michigan loss, Stroud stood at a podium and essentially delivered his own college football eulogy.

“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 said. “When it comes to that, I just have to eat it, man.”

At that moment, Stroud knew Ohio State had slipped outside the College Football Playoff field. Without a guaranteed CFP spot, he might have played his final game in a Buckeyes uniform. He took blame for the loss, not diminishing what it meant for himself or his team. Then, despite every right to put aside his postgame self-critique, he dove in.

Eight days later, he received a lifeline. Following USC’s loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, Ohio State squeaked into the CFP as the No. 4 seed. Stroud might never beat Michigan or win a Big Ten title, but he can become the first Ohio State quarterback since Cardale Jones in 2014 to lead the Buckeyes to a national championship. There’s even a chance, if Ohio State and Michigan both win their CFP semifinals, that Stroud can avenge his only two Big Ten losses in the biggest game of all.

His legacy-shaping quest begins Saturday night against No. 1 Georgia, the defending national champions, in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). But he’s not facing the highest of stakes alone. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, who recruited and developed Stroud into one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, shares the burden and the opportunity that lie ahead.

Day took over from Urban Meyer, who went 7-0 against Michigan. Despite a 45-5 record, Day now sits at 1-2 against the Wolverines, the worst start for an Ohio State coach in the series since John Cooper, who didn’t beat Michigan until his seventh attempt and whose mostly successful tenure was blighted by a 2-10-1 mark in the rivalry (his final regular-season game was the 2000 home loss to Michigan).

Quarterbacks and coaches are linked in both praise and criticism, and Stroud and Day are no exception. They symbolize an era of historic quarterback play and passing prowess at Ohio State, but not enough signature wins.

Like Stroud, the first two-time Heisman Trophy finalist in team history, Day has the chance to change everything, beginning Saturday.

“It’s kind of like a second lease on life,” Day told ESPN. “You’ve got an unbelievable opportunity here to let it all go. Not a lot of people are giving us a chance, but it’s exciting. We can do something really special.”

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and coach Ryan Day have three combined losses over the past two years, but two of those were to rival Michigan. Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MORE THAN ONCE during his Ohio State career, Stroud has referenced the bumps in his life. He did so even in the Michigan aftermath.

“Nothing’s ever been easy for me,” he said.

At first blush, it’s a surprising statement for a 21-year-old with a whip-like right arm and other natural gifts, who earned the right to play the premier position for one of college football’s premier teams, and who soon will be earning millions in the NFL.

But unlike many college quarterbacks at his level, Stroud didn’t come from the world of private coaches and nationally known high school programs. He didn’t start until his junior season at Rancho Cucamonga High, 45 miles east of Los Angeles, and his recruitment took off only after he won MVP honors at the Elite 11 finals in June 2019.

The next fall, he had 3,878 passing yards and 47 touchdowns. The big-time offers finally came, and Stroud rose to No. 104 in ESPN’s rankings of 2020 recruits. But he had a tougher climb than most.

“C.J. has always been the one overlooked; that’s kind of his journey,” Kimberly Stroud said. “He’s had to be focused and do the best at what he can control.”

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Stroud’s first love was basketball, a sport where he excelled, often taking the final shot in tight games. When he started youth football, his future as a quarterback became clear.

Willie Munford, Stroud’s youth league coach with the Alta Loma Warriors, still marvels when thinking about “that arm.” Munford joked that he’s to blame for Stroud becoming a pocket passer in the age of dual-threat QBs.

“His dad was there for the first four or five years and he would say, ‘Let him run, let him run.’ I would say, ‘Do you want him to run or do you want him to get paid?'” Munford said, laughing. “I said, ‘Stand in that pocket, you’ve got a golden arm. Use that arm.'”

Kimberly and C.J.’s father, Coleridge, would tell their son about the stark realities of playing quarterback. Coleridge explained the adulation that comes with the points and the wins, and also how quickly things can flip. Kim asked C.J. if he was sure he wanted the role. He assured her that he did.

After the Michigan game, Kim stood against the wall of Ohio State’s interview room and wasn’t surprised by what she heard.

“I was proud of him, it was an emotional moment,” she said. “I like accountability. Accountability builds you in character. When you’re a quarterback, you’re either the hero or you’re the zero. That’s what he prepared mentally for, so he understands that’s how it goes.”

Added Day: “He didn’t hide from it. It’s not all C.J.’s fault; it’s not all anybody’s fault. We all have to take ownership of a loss. For someone his age to step up and do that, it shows unbelievable character.”

The challenge for Stroud in the past month has been pivoting from a low point to a career-defining game against Georgia.

“This will be perhaps his most difficult challenge mentally because of what it sounded like at the press conference,” Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. “… Clearly, he wasn’t expecting to be in the college football playoffs after that game.”

Kimberly describes her son as “very resilient.” His biggest challenge came away from sports.

A constant presence during C.J.’s youth sports career, Coleridge in 2016 pleaded guilty to carjacking, kidnapping and other charges. He is not eligible for parole until 2040.

“When his dad left, that was tough on him,” Munford said of C.J. “He went through a two-, three-year span where he got quiet, he wasn’t that smiley kid anymore. But he had a lot of support with his coaches, people he could lean on. His mom was awesome.”

Kimberly saw C.J.’s resiliency in sports. On the rare occasion he would miss a game-winning shot in basketball, he would approach the next big one as if nothing had happened. There were times the Warriors lost games to other youth teams, only to get rematches in the playoffs. That’s when Stroud would make his opponents pay.

Stroud’s response against Georgia will be telling, and the early signs are hopeful.

“He’s got high goals and aspirations for this team and this season,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told ESPN. “I don’t see ‘woe is me or anything that has slacked. The way this program has been built is off consistent practice habits and coming to work every day with a lot of juice and energy. He’s been trained that way and coached that way, so he’s practiced that way.”

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Ryan Day describes Ohio State’s practices as electric ahead of its CFP matchup against Georgia.

URBAN MEYER HIRED Day in 2017 to oversee Ohio State’s quarterbacks, who soon blossomed under his watch. When Meyer stepped down as head coach in 2018, he saw Day as the best choice to maintain the program’s trajectory.

Day delivered with two Big Ten titles, a CFP championship game appearance and no regular-season losses during his first two seasons. During Day’s tenure, Ohio State leads the FBS in both scoring (44.9 PPG) and margin of victory (25.3 PPG).

After producing no first-round draft picks at quarterback from 1983 to 2018, Ohio State has had two straight under Day (Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Justin Fields) and a third coming soon with Stroud.

“I don’t know how you can do a better job coaching the quarterbacks than he’s done,” Cooper told ESPN. “I had some good ones, Bobby Hoying, Joe Germaine, guys like that, but I don’t know if anybody’s played better. You’ve got to put C.J., if not the top, right near the top of the best quarterbacks who have ever played here.”

Even last season, which saw Ohio State’s streaks of consecutive Big Ten titles (4) and Michigan wins (8) snapped, ended with a Rose Bowl championship and a No. 6 AP finish. But a second straight defeat to Michigan, again by a wide margin, and this time in perfect weather conditions before the home crowd, has raised doubts about the program’s direction under Day.

“It was a bad game,” Meyer told ESPN. “It was The Game, but it was a bad game, so you’ve got to move forward. I’ve been asked that question: Is something going on there? I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ The guy’s lost five games in four years. They’re always recruiting one of the top two, three, four classes in the country. Structurally, the place is fantastic.”

Meyer doesn’t think Ohio State is slipping, but he also understands the lens through which Day is judged. He helped create it with a national title, three conference titles, an undefeated season, six AP top-six finishes and an 83-9 record in Columbus.

“It’s just unrealistic expectations,” Meyer said. “But when you’re talking about Ohio State and four or five programs in America, that’s the way it is.”

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Day is part of a group of fast-rising assistants who landed their first head-coaching jobs at A-list programs. Lincoln Riley is another, replacing Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and continuing the program’s success with four consecutive Big 12 titles and CFP appearances, but never winning a playoff game before exiting for USC.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart became a first-time head coach at his alma mater and led the team to its first national title in 41 years. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has two national titles in his first head-coaching stop. But several national championship-winning coaches in the past two decades started at lower-profile programs — Meyer (Bowling Green), Nick Saban (Toledo), Mack Brown (Appalachian State), Jim Tressel (Youngstown State) — or failed elsewhere before their breakthroughs, like Pete Carroll (New York Jets, New England Patriots) and Ed Orgeron (Ole Miss). After last year’s win over Ohio State, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh seemingly referenced Day’s path by saying, “Some people who are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”

“If you look at people in Ryan Day’s situation, you’ll find very few that have had a lot of success,” said DiNardo, the former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. “I was at Indiana when [basketball coach] Mike Davis followed Bob Knight. Most head coaches, if you could lay out your career, would like your first head-coaching job to be at a place where you could make some mistakes and survive.

“Urban was Bowling Green, Utah, then Florida, then Ohio State. Harbaugh was at San Diego.”

DiNardo added that the difficulty of the Ohio State job is compounded by the program’s national aspirations. Ohio State’s goals have stretched beyond the Big Ten for decades, even though the team has only two national titles (2002, 2014) since the Woody Hayes era. Even Michigan, which will make its second consecutive CFP appearance, has historically taken a different stance. Longtime Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler, who coached Harbaugh, prioritized Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances above all else.

“Ohio State is the only national championship-or-bust program in the conference,” DiNardo said. “You don’t get credit for beating most of the teams. In fact, the bigger the margin against the lesser-talented teams, the more you put yourself in a corner to win the Michigan game and win the national championship. That is the evaluation: the Michigan game and the national championship.”

Ohio State’s ability to compete for national titles, which waned toward the end of Meyer’s tenure (only one CFP appearance after 2014), has continued to hit some snags. But Day still has the chance to accomplish the ultimate goal, possibly against his recent nemesis.

“We didn’t have those kinds of chances, there was no playoff back in those days,” Cooper said. “It would have been something. When you win that national championship, it puts you in a different category. That’s the ultimate.”

“I don’t question our toughness,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “Unfortunately in our last game, that wasn’t what we needed our best to be.”¬†Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

AFTER LOSING TO Michigan in 2021, Day has made toughness the central theme of Ohio State’s program. His choice made sense. Michigan had bullied the Buckeyes in the snow, piling up 297 rushing yards on 7.2 yards per attempt.

On Sept. 3, Ohio State opened the season with a 21-10 win over Notre Dame, leaving Day exceptionally pleased. The Buckeyes had recorded more dominant wins, easier wins, but they needed to grind to outlast the Irish.

“A lot of people questioned our toughness going into the offseason,” Day said afterward. “You watch the film and you make your decision if you think that team was tough tonight. For us to win the way we did, I couldn’t be any prouder.”

Ohio State’s quest for toughness had mixed results the rest of the way. The Buckeyes endured injuries, starting with All-American wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the opener, and had a constant churn at running back. But they also weren’t challenged much, winning their four games after Notre Dame by an average of 42 points.

The Buckeyes were outplayed for much of their Oct. 29 game at Penn State and trailed 21-16 with 9:26 to play. But they responded with a 28-point surge in a span of 6:09 to win.

The following week, Ohio State faced Northwestern in horrendous conditions, winds so strong that simple passes were difficult to complete. The Buckeyes struggled to pull away from the Wildcats, who would finish 1-11 and eventually fire their defensive coordinator.

The Michigan game took a different path than last year’s. Ohio State controlled much of the first half, holding Michigan to 10 net rushing yards but leading by only three points after allowing two long touchdown passes. But the Wolverines leaned on Ohio State in the second half, forcing three straight punts. Day drew criticism for twice punting near midfield with Ohio State down 24-20.

“I don’t question our toughness,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, in our last game, that wasn’t what we needed our best to be. The best part of being tough is you own it, you address it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Wilson has seen Day take that approach in Ohio State’s CFP prep. Practices have been crisp. Ohio State hasn’t slacked on pitting the starting offense against the starting defense.

“Brotherhood is not when you win, brotherhood is when you have adversity,” Wilson said. “Ryan’s been a big part of trying to foster that every day with the messages to the coaches, to the players, the way he’s structuring practice.

“I appreciate his energy, his genuineness, his ability to point the thumb, to rally our coaches and players together.”

Stroud has a history of responding well after Ohio State losses. He battled a shoulder injury in Ohio State’s Week 2 loss to Oregon in 2021, and would sit out a game two weeks later. He then proceeded to pass for 2,505 yards with 28 touchdowns and two interceptions over a seven-game span, leading into Michigan.

Then, even with the Big Ten title and CFP off the table, Stroud set a team record with 573 passing yards and tied the mark for touchdown passes (6) against Utah. Both totals marked Rose Bowl records.

Such gaudy numbers likely aren’t realistic against Georgia’s defense, but Stroud at least has a reference point.

“Every game he’s grown, and built up his leadership and his experience,” Day said. “He has been really excited to play in this game. He’s had a great look in his eye this month.”

When Harbaugh and Day visited California to recruit Stroud, Kimberly received a phone call from a friend, asking her: Do you know you’re in the middle of a rivalry? Back then, she didn’t grasp the enormity of Ohio State-Michigan and how the results, good or bad, can impact players and coaches.

The past month has brought those realities into focus for both her son and his coach. Stroud ranks second in team history for career passing yards (7,775), touchdowns (81) and efficiency (182.2). He has won back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards. Day is the most successful offensive coach in the modern era: In his 50 games, Ohio State has scored 40 points 35 times, and reached 500 yards in 32.

Because of two losses to the wrong opponent, Stroud and Day enter the CFP with incredible pressure, but also motivation.

“It’s what life’s all about, what this sport’s all about, overcoming adversity and growing from it, and overcoming odds,” Day said. “Right now, there’s not a lot of people who believe we can win this game, but we do. We’re going to swing as hard as we can and try to knock off the defending champs. We wanted to be in this situation at this time. The journey’s taken us a different path to get here, but we’re here.

“It’s time to put all our chips on the table and go play the game.”

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