- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
MINNEAPOLIS — When C.J. Stroud began to struggle early in his first career start as Ohio State’s quarterback, coach Ryan Day pulled the redshirt freshman aside.
The fourth-ranked Buckeyes had no intention of backing off their typically aggressive game plan on offense. Day fully expected growing pains for Stroud, who didn’t even attempt a pass as Justin Fields’ backup during an abbreviated 2020 season, as he faced Minnesota on the road Thursday night. But Day told Stroud that he wouldn’t play it safe.
“He and I had a conversation early on that we’re going to keep swinging, no matter what happens, and we’re not going to play close to the vest,” Day said. “That’s not the way we do it here. And he responded, but I really think it was the guys around him.”
Stroud and a dynamic group of receivers and backs around him rallied from two mid-game deficits to score 35 second-half points and beat Minnesota 45-31 at a rainy Huntington Bank Stadium. After passing for just 58 yards with an interception in the first half, Stroud fired four second-half touchdown passes and averaged 47.2 yards per completion. Stroud became the first Ohio State player with three passing touchdowns of 60 yards or longer in the same game in at least the past 25 years.
All six of Ohio State’s touchdowns went for longer than 30 yards, including a 32-yard fumble return by Haskell Garrett. Stroud threw touchdown passes of 70, 61, 56 and 38 yards, although most of the ground was covered following the receptions by receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and running back TreVeyon Henderson. Ohio State recorded at least three touchdowns of 60 yards or longer from scrimmage for the first time since its 2006 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame.
“In the first half, my mind wasn’t right, I was kind of all over the place,” Stroud said. “I talked to my teammates, praying a lot, trying to lock back in. I don’t feel like I did terrible, but I definitely do as best as I could.”
Ohio State seemed to use a more conservative game plan in the first half, featuring screen passes and shorter routes. Stroud’s longest completion went for 15 yards, and he threw behind Olave, which led to an interception by Minnesota’s Terell Smith.
Stroud opened the third quarter by finding Olave on a deep crossing route for a 38-yard touchdown, and began featuring his teammates on more aggressive plays.
“I have great teammates, but I think I’m a great player, too,” Stroud said. “Maybe the first half didn’t show that, but I did my best in the second [half]. In the second, I did really well. In the game of football, you have ups and downs, and they believe in me. They put me in situations to get them the ball, and that’s a big opportunity for me.
“Coach Day, he told me no matter how I’m playing, good or bad, he has trust in me. He believes in me.”
Stroud is following two record-setting Ohio State quarterbacks, Fields and Dwayne Haskins, who both became NFL first-round draft picks. But he also arrives with much less game experience, joking that he hasn’t “played football in like two years.” The Rancho Cucamonga, California, native won the starting job last month after competing with Jack Miller and Kyle McCord in preseason camp.
“I told him early on, ‘There’s no expectations going in, you might throw four interceptions, you might throw four touchdowns, I don’t know what’s going to happen,'” Day said. “I know everyone thinks you just walk out there and you’re going to throw for 300 yards and a bunch of touchdowns. It doesn’t just work that way. There’s a lot of things for a young quarterback to process who has never played.
“This is a very unique situation for someone who has really zero experience to go into a conference game on the road like this. Very, very impressed with the way he just kept swinging.”
Ohio State returns home to face No. 11 Oregon, which has won the Pac-12 in each of the past two seasons. The Ducks open their season Saturday at home against Fresno State.
“It’s a great learning experience for me,” Stroud said of his first start. “I felt like I kept my head up, I stayed positive, and my teammates, they just kept egging me on. Going into the Oregon week, you never know what could happen. It could happen again, but it’s all about what you’re going to do when you get punched in the mouth.”
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