' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 16

Monday, January 03, 2022

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 16

January 1, 2022 (Rose Bowl): Ohio State - 48 Utah - 45

Perhaps the least surprising element of a most surprising Rose Bowl game was just how undramatic the ostensibly dramatic game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining felt. Up until then, the 108th edition of the first college football bowl game, pitting the Big 10’s Ohio State Buckeyes against the Pac 12 champion Utah Utes, was an exuberant seesaw, wild swings of emotion and momentum generated by even wilder feats of strength. But in setting a Rose Bowl record with 15 catches and an overall collegiate football bowl game record with 347 receiving yards, earning him the contest’s MVP award, the Buckeyes’ 19-year old wide receiver from Rockwall, Texas, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, rendered the Granddaddy of Them All the same as another Texas legend, Vince Young, 16 years ago – inevitable.

Until kickoff, most of the discussion surrounding this Rose Bowl was concerned with what it was not and who would not be playing. The 2022 game was not part of the 4-team playoff, the Cotton and Orange Bowls assigned those spots in a pre-set rotation, leaving the Rose Bowl to exist as the meaningless exhibition it was always meant to be since the inaugural 1902 version. That exhibition status is why several star players, like Ohio State’s wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, opted out of participating, choosing to guard against injury and potentially hurting their forthcoming professional football interests. Such businesses decisions caused both the general public and the sport’s most entrenched ambassadors to question the heart of its players and how that alleged lack of heart has stained the postseason, save for its relentlessly publicized playoff, as insignificant. And so even if the sun shined bright in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco at kickoff, a metaphorical gloom hovered, the latest modern college football crisis point. Then the game commenced and intrinsically refuted every critique lobbed its way.

Sporting all-white helmets with a rose looped through the double U’s commemorating their first appearance in Pasadena on January 1st, the Utes stormed to a 14-0 lead behind the pinpoint passing of quarterback Cam Rising. This fast start seemed not to demoralize the initially sluggish Buckeyes but awaken them, in particular Rising’s Los Angeles native counterpart, C.J. Stroud, throwing his first of six touchdown passes en route to 573 yards through the air, a Rose Bowl record too. Utah’s Tavion Thomas countered with a six-yard TD run, granting the Utes a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter, at which point the gridiron deity at the controls revealed his or herself as apparently still tipsy from the previous evening’s libations and determined to give us two Rose Bowls in one after a lack of the real thing during 2020’s Pandemic season. Each team proceeded to score a pair of fantastic touchdowns in the span of just over two minutes, the game briefly and ecstatically exceeding the speed of sound.

Feasting on a Utah secondary so depleted from injury that running Micah Bernard was forced to pull old-fashioned two-way duty, Smith-Njigba reeled in a couple scoring passes, the first a fifty-yarder memorably concluding with him subliminally installing himself as a Heisman Trophy contender next season by stiff-arming a Ute defender for the final ten yards across the goal line, the second a fifty-two yarder in which he juked a defender just across midfield and then outran several more to the end zone. Utah countered with Britain Covey, its 5’8 24-year old junior folk hero, and Rising each creating astonishing bits of Johnny Manziel-ish improvisation, the former on a 97-yard madcap kickoff return to the house and the latter an improbable 4th and 1 conversion in which the quarterback pinballed out of a pocket of Buckeye defenders to race to the end zone, concluding with a celebratory shimmy on the sideline. Incredibly, Smith-Njigba, slithering wide open down the middle of the field, would have responded with yet another 50-yard touchdown reception had Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III not punched the ball out of the receiver’s arms, creating a fumble his teammate recovered in the end zone, a valiant effort defensive effort providing the Utes a crucial 35-21 cushion at halftime.

In the second half, Ohio State’s much maligned defense emerged as a key supporting character, not stonewalling Utah’s offense but fending it off just enough, limiting the Utes to a mere field goal in the third quarter as Ohio State added three points of its own and two short touchdown passes from Stroud to Marvin Harrison Jr. to deadlock the game at 38-all early in the 4th quarter. Here, a delightful game took a horrifying twist. Perhaps poised to author his legend, Rising was thrown to the turf by a pressuring Ohio State defense, his helmet noticeably bouncing off the turf as he fell, leaving him lying motionless on the field. Eventually, he departed under his own power and, afterward, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham indicated that Rising never lost consciousness. But ESPN reported the quarterback’s helmet was nonetheless stowed away, a precaution against his attempting to re-enter the game. And the moment embodied not only the ethical minefield that is watching football, even during a game as grand as this one, but why players like Olave and Wilson opt out of these games in the first place.

If the Rose Bowl always assumes a cinematic quality in the 4th quarter, after the requisite spectacular sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains ringing the 100-year old stadium, when darkness descends and the lights illuminate the players like stars on a red carpet, this one really did become a motion picture. For after Ohio State took its first lead with a precise pass by Stroud and a sensational over-the-shoulder grab by Smith-Njigba for a 30-yard touchdown that momentarily recast the wide receiver as Willie Mays and the Rose Bowl as the Polo Grounds, leaving Utah behind 45-38, the Utes were left with no alternative but to call upon backup quarterback Bryson Barnes to pilot its offense. A walk-on who grew up on a pig farm in a small southern Utah town, population roughly 1,400, who had never thrown a collegiate pass, you could see the potential story taking shape in the mind’s eye of every sportswriter, so enticing were these poetic details, and it was evocative of this Rose Bowl’s quality and unbelievability that they really did get to write that story. Suddenly tasked with airing it out to try and win the most hallowed of bowls, Barnes was first aided by Covey engendering a pass interference penalty on third down with a nifty bit of brisk misdirection catching his defender flat-footed. Then Barnes took an unexpected deep shot, drawing a second flag for pass interference and instilling the backup quarterback who had never completed a pass with a confidence that bore fruit when – you’ll never guess – he completed a 12-yard pass to tie the 108th Rose Bowl with 1:54 remaining. 

Had they stopped the game right here, at 45-45, it would have been flawless, to a neutral observer, even in lieu of a real result. Indeed, if Whittingham received valid post-game criticism for not attempting a 2-point conversion to try and take the lead, given his defense’s struggles, it also unwittingly allowed not just the fans but his team to bask in that moment, of the game being even and what transpired to make it so, of hope and possibility briefly, gloriously stretching out into the New Year’s evening. It’s a feeling, I suspect, the whole of Utah will recall years from now much more than the one Ohio State will remember. Forced into an ultimate case of pick your poison, either jam Smith-Njigba at the line of scrimmage and hope he would not run past their defenders for a touchdown (which he undoubtedly would have) or play back and allow him space to get wide open underneath the coverage and gradually advance down the field anyway, Utah chose the second option. Njigba-Smith caught two passes on Ohio State’s concluding drive all the way to Utah’s two yard line where Noah Ruggles booted a 19-yard field goal as the clock neared zero to win it. Like I said, inevitable.

True, this denied Smith-Njigba a similar regal climax to Vince Young’s last-second touchdown scamper in the 2006 Rose Bowl just as Ruggles’s field goal did not win a national championship a la Young’s celebrated run. But, in the end, the 2022 game was no less thrilling for its result. College football has always been an illogical sport, bowls played after the champions were decided for much of its existence, those champions determined by pollsters for even longer, capriciousness reigning supreme rather than reason, a unique concoction that always flouted the sort of meaning the modern critics complain it lacks. But that has never meant college football is meaningless. It imposes meaning in its own way, by the players as much as anyone or anything else, the effort that they give, the manner in which it is given, the experience that it yields. And in the 2022 Rose Bowl, Ohio State and Utah elevated a game that meant nothing in the grand scheme into something monumental. I’m not sure a Rose Bowl ever mattered more.

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