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Rarely in life is there an opportunity to change public perception with a lasting memory.
In sports, it’s even more difficult, especially when the last opportunity came against a chief rival, on a national stage, and in the regular season finale.
Enter the Utah Utes and the Rose Bowl stage.
Utah has made a living pounding the football all season long on the way to a Pac-12 title. When they saw Michigan roll up nearly 300 yards on the ground against Ohio State — the team they’d play in the Rose Bowl — they had to be licking their chops.
Ohio State appeared to be limping into the bowl game like a starving three-legged dog wandering through the wilderness.
With star wide receivers Chris Olave and Garret Wilson opting out and left tackle Nicolas Petit-Frere following suit, the once powerful Buckeye offense looked vulnerable. On the defensive side, OSU’s best defensive tackle, Haskell Garrett, also declined to play, opening a huge hole in the middle of Ohio State’s already inconsistent run defense.
The Rose Bowl didn’t start well for OSU, who dug themselves into a 14-point deficit multiple times and who didn’t control the game by any stretch. The 35-21 halftime score also didn’t do anything to ease the tension. However, a halftime speech by sixth year senior Demario McCall changed the 2nd half fortunes for the Ohio State defense. After surrendering 35 points in the 1st half, the Silver Bullets yielded only 10 points in the final two quarters and pulled off a 48-45 comeback victory.
It’s nearly impossible to carry the momentum from a big bowl victory through the offseason. There is typically so much turnover within a team, from coaches to players, that the momentum fades. However individual players can put together a performance that will solidify their roles, help them improve, and grow their confidence throughout the offseason.
Here are a few players who changed their narrative in Pasadena.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Despite being the third option for much of the season, Jaxon was still recognized as an All-American for his massive production, so Saturday night wasn’t a complete surprise. However, any time you have 15 catches for 347 yards and three TDs, people take notice. His roll as lead receiver was already assured, but he’s now the front runner for the Belitnekoff Award.
WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
When your dad is an NFL Hall of Famer, he sometimes casts a long shadow. But, in Pasadena it was all sunshine for Marvin. After sitting behind three elite receivers all season, he finally had his chance to shine. Outside of Jaxon, he was the best receiver on the field. With his size and ball skills, he became a favorite red zone target of QB CJ Stroud, compiling three touchdown receptions. With Olave and Wilson moving on, Marvin takes the early lead to be the No. 2 receiver heading into the spring.
LB Tommy Eichenberg
The Buckeye linebacker room in 2021 was devastated. K’ Vaughan Pope entered the portal midseason and Dallas Gant and Mitchell Melton both suffered season-ending injuries, so there wasn’t a ton of depth. Tommy stepped in early in the season and joined the rotation with Cody Simon and Steele Chambers. Early in the season, he played well at times but often appeared hesitant. As his snap count grew, so did his confidence. On Saturday, he turned in a 17-tackle performance, which put his true abilities on full display. He was attacking downhill and playing with a command that the Buckeyes defense desperately needed. Who knows what his ceiling could be, but he established himself as a critical defensive cog and a leader heading into the offseason.
S Kourt Williams
The highly touted safety took longer than expected to finally see significant playing time for the Buckeye defense. Kourt has battled injuries throughout his Ohio State career but is well known around the Woody Hayes facility for his commitment to rehabbing and film study. He began seeing more time throughout the season, but the Rose Bowl was his true coming out party. He registered six tackles and the only sack for the defense, displaying the kind of versatility that should make him a serious contributor in 2022.