COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — During C.J. Stroud’s second trip to New York in as many years as a Heisman Trophy finalist, he noticed his picture on some of the billboards in Times Square and took a moment to reflect.
“I was talking to my mom and my cousins and my brother and my sister who came with me, and who would have thought? Honestly, like, I’m not even supposed to be here,” Stroud said.
Stroud is 21-3 as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. He has collected back-to-back honors as the offensive player of the year in the Big Ten from The Associated Press (he shared it in 2021) and the junior is considered one of the top NFL prospects at his position.
C.J. Stroud vs Michigan
But he’s been on the losing end of both meetings against archrival Michigan and the Buckeyes did not reach the Big Ten title game in either season with him behind center, despite his spectacular numbers. He finished third in the Heisman voting this year after finishing fourth a year ago.
Crucial losses and questions surrounding Ohio State’s offense have lingered around Stroud’s legacy, notably this season amid the absence of playmakers like wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba or TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams at running back due to injuries.
Stroud isn’t putting his head down. He hears the skeptics and said it’s unjust for others to criticize him and his teammates beyond the football field as a result of injuries or an outcome on the scoreboard.
“Of course I take it very serious,” Stroud said. “A lot of people would just watch the game and be on the couch. I live it. Every single day. I’m the one who’s getting laughed at on TV and things like that, and so it’s somewhat unfair that people have that type of opinion.”
Stroud’s place in the Ohio State record books is already well decorated.
The California native moved into the No. 2 spot this season among Ohio State quarterbacks with 81 passing touchdowns and 7,775 yards. Some of that went to the likes of wide receivers such as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who became first round NFL draft picks last April, and Marvin Harrison Jr., who caught 12 scores this season.
Harrison said he admires Stroud’s skills and leadership and that he’s “never seen anything like it.”
“We all look to C.J. when things are going good and bad,” Harrison said. “He always rallies us together, whether that’s halftime, we’re down or before the game. He’s always talking to us, making sure that we kind of have the right mindset going into everything.”
Stroud has participated in community events around Ohio State and Columbus that extend his influence beyond the field. On and off the gridiron, Stroud said he is proud of what he’s accomplished.
“I’m so blessed in my life to have so many people I’ve inspired,” Stroud said. “That’s the thing that keeps me going is the kids that I see, and I think that’s why I’m really on this earth and that’s why I have a God-given talent is to inspire kids. Inspire not only kids, but adults as well who want to do great things in their lives.”
No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) got a second chance of sorts and landed in the College Football Playoff, where it will face No. 1 Georgia (13-0) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. The winner will play either TCU or Michigan for the national championship Jan. 9.
Stroud’s relationship with coach Ryan Day has strengthened since the quarterback’s arrival in 2020. Day recruited Stroud, coached him within the quarterbacks room and stood beside him in moments of adversity and triumph, and the Heisman ceremony gave him a chance to reflect on another shining moment.
“He’s given a lot to Ohio State, and certainly that was a great opportunity for me with his family and get recognized for that” Day said Dec. 13. “He’s going to work really hard over the next 2 1/2 weeks to play his best football.”
Stroud thinks the Buckeyes’ semifinal game against the Bulldogs will have “a lot of emotions” and one many have waited for “since last year.” Whether he departs for the NFL afterward is something he has yet to determine.
For now, his time at Ohio State is unfinished — and he has a chance to complete it with a storybook ending.
“I love being a Buckeye,” Stroud said. “No one can take that away from me.”
By JACOB BENGE Associated Press
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Photo: © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports