Deservedly, Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the Ohio State wide receiver who has received most of the attention for his performance in the Rose Bowl. But he wasn’t the only Buckeye wideout who caught three touchdown passes in the Buckeyes’ final game of the 2021 season.
Because Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson opted out of the Rose Bowl, Marvin Harrison Jr. got the opportunity to make his first start as a Buckeye in the season finale. Playing a big role on a big stage for the first time in his Ohio State career, the true freshman didn’t disappoint. After catching just five passes for 59 yards during the regular season, Harrison caught six passes for 71 yards against Utah, including touchdowns in the second, third and fourth quarters.
The first touchdown showed that Ohio State already trusted him despite his inexperience. Facing 4th-and-1 and trailing 14-0 early in the second quarter, Ohio State dialed up a pass play and C.J. Stroud threw a deep ball to Harrison, who beat Utah nickelback Malone Maetele and tracked the ball perfectly to catch it just inside the left boundary of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
Harrison said that catch, his first of the game and the first touchdown of his Ohio State career, gave him the confidence he could make plays all night long.
“I was nervous, for sure,” Harrison said of making his first start. “I didn’t really get my feet settled until after the fourth-down catch, first touchdown. Coach Day had a lot of confidence in me to go make the play.”
Harrison scored his second touchdown as a Buckeye just over one quarter later, when he beat converted running back Micah Bernard on a drag route to the back of the end zone and made a clean catch while keeping both feet in bounds for an 8-yard touchdown.
Harrison tied the game early in the fourth quarter when he made another toe-tapping catch in the left side of the end zone, this time against Utah’s top cornerback Clark Phillips, for a 7-yard touchdown.
In a game where Ohio State needed every score it got to win 48-45, the Buckeyes turned to Harrison to make big plays in scoring territory, and he took advantage of the opportunities to help propel the Buckeyes to a Rose Bowl win.
“I can’t thank those guys enough for having the confidence in me to make those plays,” Harrison said after the game. “All my hard work paid off.”
Harrison entered his first season at Ohio State with plenty of hype. He caught Ryan Day’s eye as soon as he arrived on campus as an early enrollee; during a February press conference, Day singled out the 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman as someone who “looked like a different person when he walked in the building.” Throughout the spring and summer, Harrison drew rave reviews for his work ethic and quick development, giving reason to believe he could see substantial playing time right away.
With Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba rarely coming off the field during the regular season, however, Harrison only played occasionally – though there were flashes of his playmaking potential, like the Indiana game, where he hyped up his teammates by showing off some shifty moves in the open field (in a game where he also tackled Indiana’s punter in the end zone for a safety).
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Harrison, who still played the fourth-most snaps of any wide receiver during the regular season (192), wasn’t bothered by his limited role for most of his freshman year. He knew that would be part of the deal when he arrived at Ohio State.
“That wasn’t really hard at all, because I knew I had to wait my turn, and obviously the guys ahead of me are great receivers who are going to go on and do big things in the league,” Harrison said.
But Harrison was confident all along that he would be prepared to step up when his time came.
“I worked really hard to be able to perform like that,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s teammates expected him to be ready, too. Wilson said during a radio appearance last month that Harrison was “someone everyone should be looking out for next year.”
“He’s been playing X this year, and that’s where I was at as well, so I got to see him and run routes with him, run the same routes as him throughout practice and he’s really special,” Wilson said. “He’s a different breed. You can see the impact his father had on him and how great of a job he did, as far as catching footballs and running routes, he’s a technician.”
Stroud had no qualms about throwing to Harrison in key situations against Utah, and he expects Harrison’s Rose Bowl performance to be just the beginning of a great Ohio State career.
“I call Marv Route Man Marv. His routes are amazing,” Stroud said after the Rose Bowl. “Marv had a great game. He showed you all a little glimpse. He has way more in his bag.”
Even with Wilson and Olave gone, Ohio State will still be loaded with talented wide receivers in 2022. Smith-Njigba will undoubtedly continue to see a ton of targets. Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka were both top-10 overall prospects in their respective recruiting classes, and they also flashed in the Rose Bowl, in which Fleming caught five passes for 35 yards and Egbuka caught three passes for 46 yards. Redshirt freshman Jayden Ballard will be another candidate to earn a spot in the rotation next season, while incoming freshmen Caleb Burton, Kyion Grayes, Kaleb Brown and Kojo Antwi are all talented enough to push for immediate playing time.
Harrison’s performance in the Rose Bowl, though, is reason to believe he has the inside track to earn a starting job and play a major role in Ohio State’s 2022 receiving corps. In a game where Ohio State needed its young wideouts to step up, it was Harrison who played the second-most snaps and made the second-biggest impact among wide receivers behind only Smith-Njigba, and the route-running ability and body control he demonstrated in Pasadena showed why he could be Ohio State’s next star wideout.
That three-touchdown game, which Harrison said gave him “a big confidence boost” entering 2022, could serve as a jumping-off point for his sophomore season as a Buckeye. And he has no plans to get complacent even though he’s now had a taste of success.
“I’m just gonna try to work even harder than I did last offseason,” Harrison said when asked what’s next for him. “That’s just my goal. Each offseason, work harder than I did last year.”