AFC South Reporter
A smiling C.J. Stroud pointed to the home crowd after referees confirmed his go-ahead touchdown strike with six seconds left. Then he bounced around, flexing his triceps. And when he got to the sideline, he took off his helmet and let out a celebratory roar.
For all the performances that have made Stroud the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, what he did Sunday marked his first signature win for the Texans (4-4).
“7 (Stroud) is DIFFERENT omg,” Texans defensive lineman Jonathan Greenard tweeted.
Ohio State fan LeBron James sent an even more succinct Tweet.
Stroud’s first career game-winning drive capped his historic performance in the Texans’ thrilling 39-37 victory over the Buccaneers (3-5), which featured five lead changes. He completed 71.4% of his passes for 470 yards, an NFL single-game passing record for a rookie, and a career-high five touchdowns.
Stroud became the second rookie ever with at least 400 passing yards and five touchdowns in a game, joining Matthew Stafford. He’s also the sixth player in NFL history with at least 450 passing yards, five touchdown passes and zero interceptions in a contest.
“It was a gutsy performance from him,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said “It wasn’t all clean, but he gutted it out. He was tough in the pocket. Made some plays. Made some big-time throws for us.”
The former Ohio State star caught fire in the second half, when he completed 80% of his passes for 325 yards, four of his five touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The show started on the Texans’ first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, when Stroud hit veteran receiver Noah Brown for a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown down the sideline to cut their deficit to 20-16.
Houston scored a touchdown on its next drive too, the result of a perfectly placed 29-yard ball from Stroud to fellow rookie Tank Dell in the end zone.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 23, the Texans faced a fourth-and-goal from the 9-yard line knowing they needed to go for it. Their place kicker, Ka’imi Fairbairn, had been ruled out for the game with a quad injury.
Stroud rose to the occasion. He hit tight end Dalton Schultz for the touchdown. Then he converted on the ensuing two-point attempt, taking the ball up the middle into the end zone. He busted out into the squabble, the dance he has made famous in the NFL.
He showed the same composure under pressure on the Texans’ final drive.
After Baker Mayfield’s touchdown pass to tight end Cade Otton, the Bucs led 37-33 with just 46 seconds remaining. Houston, with two timeouts left, had to go 75 yards for the touchdown. Stroud proceeded to complete 5 of 5 passes, including the 15-yard game-winner to Dell, to put his stamp on the game.
“I told them boys upfront, ‘If y’all just give me a little bit of time, I’m going to make them pay,'” Stroud said. “And they didn’t just give me a little bit of time, they gave me a lot of time. So that helps a lot.
“I think as you can see, I don’t think we can be stopped when we’re on our A-game,” he added. “It’s a big-time win for us. November and December are when you want to be playing your best ball.”
What made Stroud’s performance all the more impressive was that he succeeded in spite of the Texans’ lack of a run game, an Achilles’ heel all season. Houston had 53 rushing yards for the game, including just seven through two quarters.
Stroud, who didn’t reach 200 yards passing in the Texans’ previous two games, was on fire with his pass-catchers. The Texans had three receivers with more than 100 yards receiving for the first time in franchise history: Brown (six receptions, 153 yards, TD), Schultz (10 receptions, 130 yards, TD) and Dell (six receptions, 114 yards, TD).
“If [the run game is not] there, we have a guy who can really throw it and make some plays,” Ryans said. “If that’s a strength of ours and we have to play to that, that’s what we’ll do.”
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Stroud said playcaller Bobby Slowik challenged the offense this past week in practice. The unit had a bad taste in its mouth coming out of last week’s loss to the previously winless Panthers, when it scored just 13 points, the second-fewest for the team this season.
Slowik wanted more from his young quarterback.
“He told me, ‘You have to go make plays. Be special. You’re a special player. Go be special,'” Stroud recalled of the conversation. “He put the ball in my hand and I appreciate that.”
He turned it into his franchise quarterback moment.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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