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Even in defeat, C.J. Stroud made his case for QB1

Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud had a statement performance against Georgia

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Ohio State v Georgia Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Ohio State lost to Georgia in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday night. As the ball dropped in Times Square, ringing in a new year, kicker Noah Ruggles pulled a potential game-winning field goal wide left, costing the Buckeyes the game against Georgia, and denying them a shot at playing for the National Championship.

Yet, even in defeat, Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud was magnificent. The Buckeyes passer put perhaps his most complete game on film in his final collegiate performance.

Over the coming weeks and months, much will be said, and written, about the 2023 quarterback draft class. Some will declare Kentucky passer Will Levis as the top prospect in the group. Others will make a case for Bryce Young, or even Anthony Richardson. There will also be other who will argue that teams with a need a quarterback would be better off waiting until 2024, when Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, and other quarterbacks will be potential options.

But what Stroud did on Saturday night, against a stout Georgia defense, is hard to ignore.

Stroud completed 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Buckeyes fell by a final score of 42-41. Yet beyond the numbers, is how Stroud attacked the Bulldogs defense: With both his arm, his mind, and his legs.

One of the knocks on Stroud this entire season, as players like Levis and Richardson have perhaps surpassed him on some draft boards, is that Stroud is not a dangerous weapon outside the pocket, or playing off-script. Yet, he showed against the Bulldogs that he can do just that, and make a defense pay in the process.

Ohio State opened the scoring Saturday night with a 31-yard connection between Stroud and wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., and the touchdown gave us our first glimpse of Stroud creating off-script against the Bulldogs. Watch as the QB calmly works through his reads in the pocket, but then buys time by rolling out to his right. As he does so, he keeps his eyes downfield and directs traffic, before finding Harrison in the end zone for six:

Here’s another look at the play, from the end zone angle:

Early in the second quarter, Ohio State built a 21-7 lead on another connection between Stroud and Harrison. This time, you can see the athleticism from the QB, as Stroud makes a play reminiscent of the quarterback he replaced in the huddle for the Buckeyes:

But after Georgia stormed back to take the lead, Ohio State answered. This time, what stood out from Stroud was his patience in the pocket, and his touch with the football. With the Bulldogs having scored 17 unanswered points to take a 24-21 lead before halftime, the Buckeyes roared down the field to regain the lead on this throw from Stroud to Xavier Johnson:

This is a beautiful design from the Buckeyes, and a patient play from Stroud. Ohio State runs a smash concept to each side of the field, with a deep corner route from the inside receiver and a route to the flat from each outside receiver. But Johnson leaks up the middle out of the backfield, and gets a favorable matchup in the secondary. Stroud lets this develop, and then layers in a perfect throw for a big gain. Johnson finishes it off with a spin move just before the goal line to evade a tackle, and the Buckeyes have the lead once more.

Late in the fourth quarter, Georgia took a 42-41 lead, but the Buckeyes had more than enough time to get into range for a field goal attempt. It was Stroud — and his legs — that got them close:

Stroud’s huge run put the Buckeyes in position for a long field goal try. They would not get any closer — and how Ohio State handled those final few plays will be debated for months — forcing them to rely on a 50-yard attempt that was well off the mark. But the Buckeyes only had that chance thanks to what Stroud had done over the course of the game.

There is something else to note about Stroud’s play on Saturday night.

His competitive toughness.

Quarterback is a position unlike any other. Yes, traits such as arm talent, and anticipation, and mental processing, and accuracy, and athleticism, and all the other buzzwords you are going to hear over the next few months matter.

So too does leadership. Competitive toughness. The ability to inspire those around you. The ability to walk into a huddle, command the attention — and respect — of the other ten people in the huddle with you, and get them to believe in you, and what you can do for your team. The second those ten sets of eyes in the huddle with you are not looking back at you, with the believe that you are going to lead them to glory, you have failed as a QB.

Stroud’s athleticism, and ability to play off-script, were questions that he answered on Saturday night. But he also answered that competitive toughness question. After losses to Michigan in each of the past two years, his performance against Georgia was a defining moment. HIs closing argument that he, too, can lead an NFL franchise. That he can step into a huddle and command that respect from the ten NFL veterans around him.

Saturday night, Stroud made his closing argument as to why he is QB1 in this class.

And it was a damn good one.