ATLANTA — In a hallway off the room where they just held their last news conference together after their last game together, Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud sat in a chair as Ohio State coach Ryan Day stood a few feet away. They were waiting to finish a final TV interview when Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett and Georgia coach Kirby Smart came around the corner to enter their own victorious news conference.
Bennett stopped and extended a hand to Stroud. Stroud looked up, stood up and slapped hands with Bennett. Smart walked towards Day for a last handshake.
“Go win the whole thing,” Day told him.
Bennett and Smart wore the same looks on their faces, those pursed smiles that let opponents know that things could easily have been reversed. It could have been Bennett in that chair rising to greet Stroud.
“I think we should have won the game, of course,” Stroud said during the news conference. “I definitely think we should have won the game.”
Ohio State lost to Georgia 42-41 in a Peach Bowl playoff semifinal Saturday night. The Buckeyes are 11-2 and done. The Bulldogs are 14-0 and heading for the national title game in Los Angeles on Jan. 9. And that is that.
“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win,” Day said. ”And I think that’s probably what hurts the most is that when you put that much work and that much energy and that much time into something and you’re right there and you just — you don’t get the victory.
“This is a performance business, and you win or you lose, and we lose the game. That’s just what hurts to our core. And that’s what it is. We’re here to win, and it didn’t happen.”
But … if you care to look for anything else, if you’re open to the truths you sometimes find in defeat, if you’re accepting of the lessons that linger when you fight until the end, then Ohio State found something in that hallway.
They know that Georgia recognizes what could have been.
“My heart goes out to those guys because they played well enough to win the game, and they’ve got a really good football team. So we do,” Smart said when he got into his news conference.
And Stroud and Day found something in that news conference, when a coach and a player sit together and say things to the world they maybe wouldn’t say to each other, because now it’s over, and time is short.
On a play-calling question to Day about the final play before a missed 50-yard field goal, Stroud jumped in at the end to say, “It was a good call, a great call.”
On a question to Day praising the efficiency of the OSU offense and how he did it, the coach pointed to the player to his right: “I could tell you we had this guy right here. They’re all good plays when you have good players.”
The Michigan loss five weeks ago almost broke Ohio State and its fans. Some recruiting misses on signing day on Dec. 21, in the midst of the new realities of NIL, added another layer of angst to what is normally a celebration of OSU’s talent acquisition.
For a month, Ohio State was one of four teams with a remaining shot at a championship, and yet a sense of foreboding followed the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes knew there was only one solution.
So what do you do with almost winning?
In the last four years, Ohio State has played in three playoff semifinals. They won in 2020, and lost the other two in the final moments. It was an interception with 37 seconds left when Chris Olave broke off his route against Clemson in 2019. It was a missed 50-yard field goal with three seconds to play on Saturday after the Buckeyes stagnated on their final three offensive plays.
Both are in contention for the most heartbreaking losses in Ohio State football history. That’s a lot of heartbreak.
So a win didn’t fix Ohio State on Saturday. But this defeat, compared to a loss to Michigan in your own stadium when the offense stalled not for three plays but the entire second half … maybe a loss like this helped the Buckeyes find where the glue is.
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“This is the way we need to play football,” Day said. “You can see the energy and passion on the sideline, and you can see the way guys were playing physically. I mean, listen, that’s a good team. Let’s call it for what it is. They are defending national champions, undefeated. They’re a good team. But I don’t think there’s one guy in that locker room that doesn’t feel like we shouldn’t have won the game. Again, that’s a part of this thing that is going to sit in our stomachs for a long time.
“Guys were flying around. We were competing. In the end, we came up short. So we’ll have to figure out how to get it fixed in the offseason so that when we’re here again, we’re on top when it comes down to it.”
After the 2019 loss, the Buckeyes came back and beat Clemson the next year in another semifinal. Maybe book the Buckeyes and Bulldogs in the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2024. But Stroud won’t be back for that. He’ll be in the NFL.
He’ll be gone with this game to his name — 23 of 34 passing for 348 yards and four touchdowns, plus the 71 positive yards he gained on the ground in eight carries. And he’ll be gone with this night in his memory.
“At the end of the day, we had the mindset that we were going to let everything hang,” Stroud said. “We were going to go out and fight as hard as we can and swing as hard as we can. I felt we did that.
“Time and time and time again we kept swinging, kept fighting, kept swinging, kept fighting, and it is what it is. … Of course you’re going to have some regrets on certain plays — wish you did this, wish you did that. At the end of the day, man, it’s a man in the arena. It’s hard to do what we do. It’s hard, but it’s a blessing at the same time. You’ve got to be joyful in these moments.”
Day said assistant coach Keenan Bailey tabulated that the Buckeyes ran 1,500 practice reps this month to prepare for this game. He repeated the number three times. 1,500 reps. Winning creates bonds. Stronger even are those bonds forged by the work in the pursuit of winning. Stroud said the work set him free, the work made Saturday fun.
“That was probably the most fun game I ever played in my life,” he said.
That’s what the Buckeyes shared Saturday night, a night of football fun. That included the 21-year-old quarterback and the 43-year-old coach who are the focus of the right and the wrong, of the wins and the losses. That focus bonds you, too.
“I’m not just saying this because he’s right here, but the work that was put in over the last month by CJ, just inputting the game plan, getting in front of the team, the leadership,” Day said. “And all of our guys. I thought the receivers, I thought the O-line was unbelievable this week, just the way they worked. We worked hard.”
Said Stroud: “I mean, me and Coach Day, we get up early every morning (and get) on the phone constantly, whatever we can do to win and put smiles on people’s faces.” It’s tough.
“But I wouldn’t regret anything. I wouldn’t take anything back. I’m blessed to have a coach like Coach Day. I’m blessed to have my teammates that I have. And I wouldn’t want to go out there and do it with anybody else.”
The coach and quarterback talked about each other as if believing the other needed defending. After what happened against Michigan, and how the last month felt, maybe they did.
But after Saturday night, maybe they don’t anymore — at least not as much.
“Coach Day did a helluva job, man. His leadership — even though people would talk and do this and do that, he just keeps showing up,” Stroud said. “When you see a man like that, that’s a real man, a man in the arena. Really everybody on our team, we didn’t splinter. We didn’t point fingers when we lost. We owned our mistakes and kept swinging, like our culture. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else, with anybody else. Coach Day, helluva coach.”
Stroud’s game is often built on precision, but there’s typically nothing Day appreciates more in a player than grit. So when the Buckeyes scored their third touchdown after Stroud fought through a sack attempt, escaped to the right and hit Marvin Harrison Jr. in the corner of the end zone, Day went wild. He jumped onto the field, pumped his fists and shook as if his body was convulsing.
I knew what that was — it was a coach celebrating the toughness of his quarterback. I told Day that in the hallway. He smiled and admitted it was true. Then he told me to tell Stroud what I just said, to make it known that we all saw how the quarterback fought, and why the coach loved him so much. So I told Stroud. But I don’t know if I had to.
When people work together, and win together, and lose together, and fight together… you already know.
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