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C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba have history-making connection in Rose Bowl win

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Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, wearing red, runs for a gain against Utah Utes cornerback Malone Mataele, wearing white.

Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs for a big gain against Utah Utes cornerback Malone Mataele (15) during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PASADENA, Calif. — For the Ohio State Buckeyes, the connection between quarterback C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba at the Rose Bowl on Saturday proved historic.

In an instant classic 48-45 win over Utah, the freshman quarterback and sophomore wide receiver connected time and time again.

When the Buckeyes needed a first down or a touchdown, there was Smith-Njigba, hauling in another pass from Stroud.

Smith-Njigba had 15 receptions for 347 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Yes, you read that right.

“C.J. and he just have a great connection. They have a great feel, and I think there’s a lot of trust there that’s been built over the year,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.

“They read each other really well, and they’ve got a special connection.”

Smith-Njigba set multiple records on New Year’s Day in Pasadena — the most receiving yards ever in a FBS bowl game, the most receiving yards in Rose Bowl history (accomplished in the third quarter) and the most receiving yards in a single game for Ohio State.

“I think Jaxon’s done what he’s done all year, and that’s just play within himself. Certainly some of the plays he made tonight was tremendous. We leaned on him a lot,” Day said.

Stroud threw for 573 yards and six touchdowns — both Rose Bowl records — on 80% accuracy with an interception.

“They played exceptionally well, particularly on offense. That quarterback is terrific,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Stroud, a redshirt freshman, and Smith-Njigba, a sophomore, entered Ohio State’s program together, and from Day One, have built chemistry and a connection.

That chemistry showed throughout Ohio State’s regular season. Smith-Njigba led the Buckeyes in receiving yards with 1,259, and Stroud quarterbacked one of the best offenses in college football this season, throwing for 3,862 passing yards and 38 touchdowns.

In Pasadena, that connection paid off.

“We built that connection probably all the way back — we came in as freshmen together, came in early. We were throwing at the line the first day,” Stroud said.

“Scout team last year, we really built it. This doesn’t surprise me at all. When I heard the numbers, I didn’t really notice because he does this all the time.”

No Chris Olave, no Garrett Wilson, no problem for the Buckeyes’ offense on Saturday.

Ohio State provided the best offensive showing in Rose Bowl history.

Utah and Ohio State’s offense went blow for blow, especially in a hectic second quarter that featured Ute quarterback Cam Rising and Stroud going toe to toe.

In one span in the second quarter, there were four touchdowns scored in just over a minute.

Stroud, a Heisman finalist, attacked the middle of the field with ease.

“If he stays grounded and trusts his coach, trusts the training and the players, the scheme, and just keeps being a humble, good guy, the sky’s the limit,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.

While Smith-Njigba was his favorite target, Marvin Harrison Jr. — the son of NFL Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison — also shined in the “Grandaddy of Them All.”

With Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba getting the bulk of the receptions all season, the freshman Harrison had a limited role in the regular season, with five receptions for 68 yards.

He surpassed that in the Rose Bowl, with six receptions for 71 yards and three touchdowns.

Stroud trusted Harrison on a key fourth down. Down 14-0 at the start of the second quarter, Ohio State went for it on fourth and 1, and Stroud found Harrison for a touchdown that kickstarted a scoring bonanza.

“I call Marv ‘Route Man Marv.’ His routes are amazing, especially against a good corner like (Clark Phillips III),” Stroud said. “I know (Micah Bernard), he had a decent game as well, filling in that spot. I have respect for their defense, but when my guys are rolling, I think we’re pretty much unstoppable.”

Ohio State’s offensive line provided Stroud time to throw all game, and Utah did not sack Stroud once.

“I did think that we played with more physicality up front. I thought the offensive line handled their front very well,” Day said.

Utah’s secondary was banged up, especially at cornerback. With JaTravis Broughton, Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn all out with injuries, the Utes called on running back Bernard to play the cornerback opposite Phillips III.

While Bernard certainly did an admirable job considering the stage and the circumstances, it was a nearly impossible task against Ohio State’s wide receivers.

The Buckeyes targeted Bernard often and found success.

Afterward, Bernard tweeted that it was “one of the hardest things I’ve been asked to do.”

While the Buckeyes didn’t accomplish their No. 1 goals of winning a national championship, or making the College Football Playoff, a Rose Bowl championship is pretty sweet.

“I just try to take in every moment every time the ball’s in the air,” Smith-Njigba said. “I feel like I did that today, so it’s a blessing.”