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Ohio State Football: 2021 Team Awards

TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State Buckeyes

A disappointing ending to 2021 obscures strong performances by the Buckeyes, including freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson

A funny thing happened to the Ohio State Buckeyes on their (seemingly) annual trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State was completely run over 42-27 by their hated rival, the Michigan Wolverines, and relegated to watching the conference championship from home for the first time since 2016.

While the Buckeyes did not repeat as Big Ten champions, Ohio State was rewarded with a trip to Pasadena and the 2022 Rose Bowl. In preparation for the conclusion to the 2021 season, below is a look back at several players who helped to make this season memorable for Ohio State.

Offensive MVP: C.J. Stroud, QB

A question mark coming into this season, Stroud responded beautifully by passing for 351.1 yards per game (fourth in the FBS), 38 touchdowns (fifth), and 9.8 yards per attempt (third) while completing 70.9 percent of his passes (sixth). Stroud's performance earned him a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Defensive MVP: Ronnie Hickman, S

Hickman played a hybrid linebacker/safety position and led the Buckeyes with 95 tackles. Hickman was always around the ball and also had one sack and a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown against Akron. The next closest defender in tackles was linebacker Cody Simon, with 54.

Best Freshman: TreVeyon Henderson, RB

Technically, Stroud was a redshirt freshman and could be considered for this recognition, but Henderson earned the nod with his strong debut by rushing for 1,172 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also adding 23 receptions for 285 yards and four more scores. His 19 touchdowns were second nationally only to Marshall running back Rasheen Ali among freshmen, and no other freshman in Ohio State football history has scored that many.

Best Play of the Season: Henderson's 70-yard catch

Speaking of Henderson, his reception out of the backfield in the season opener helped to spark Ohio State to a victory on the road against Minnesota. It also served notice to the college football world about Henderson as an offensive weapon.

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Best Performance (Player): Stroud vs. Michigan State

Against a Michigan State team that was ranked seventh coming into this contest, Stroud completed 32 of 35 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns. In other words, Stroud had twice as many touchdown passes as he had incompletions. The performance earned him an eye-popping 98.6 QBR.

Best Performance (Team): 56-7 win over No. 7 Michigan State

Ohio State thoroughly dominated the Spartans and effectively ended Spartans running back Kenneth Walker III's Heisman Trophy campaign by limiting him to only 25 yards on six carries. The Buckeyes scored 49 points in the first half alone and earned their biggest win against a ranked team since beating No. 9 Nebraska 62-3 in November 2016.

Defining Moment: Jerron Cage's fumble return vs. Penn State

Going into the Penn State game, Ohio State had come off a five-game winning streak by easily defeating Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, and Indiana. The Nittany Lions came into Ohio Stadium wounded but talented and kept battling the Buckeyes throughout the night. Cage's 57-yard fumble return for a touchdown helped push their lead to 10 points before halftime.

Biggest Surprise: Stroud's quick success at quarterback

Coming off two years of Justin Fields at quarterback, Ohio State fans recognized that a redshirt freshman would have his ups and downs. Nobody could have anticipated that Stroud would wind up as a Heisman Trophy finalist after his first season. After tossing eight touchdowns vs. three interceptions in his first three games, Stroud closed the year with 30 touchdowns and two interceptions in his final eight games.

Biggest Disappointment: The defense

The Week 2 35-28 home loss to Oregon prompted defensive staff adjustments, but the 42-27 loss on the road at Michigan demonstrated that the Buckeyes' defense was truly not College Football Playoff-caliber. Major changes will take place on that unit heading into 2022.

Senior Who Will Be Missed the Most: Chris Olave, WR

Olave was a surprise returnee in 2021 and cemented his name in the Ohio State record books for most touchdowns with 36. Olave is a projected first-round pick in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft and was instrumental in Stroud's strong 2021 debut season.

Player to Watch in 2022: Tyleik Williams, DL

With the uncertainty on defense, interior lineman Williams may emerge as a starter next season. Williams played sporadically as a true freshman in 2021 but was credited with five sacks and one forced fumble. Coming out of high school, he was a four-star prospect, ranked 166th overall by 247Sports.

Offseason Storyline: How will the defense perform in 2022?

With the hiring of Oklahoma State's Jim Knowles as the new defensive coordinator in 2022, all eyes will turn towards that side of the ball for significant improvement. Knowles helped Oklahoma State rank third nationally in total defense (278.4 ypg) and tied for seventh in scoring defense (16.8 ppg) through a tough loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game.

— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.