COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many outside the program expected to see No. 2 Ohio State unleash yet another high-powered offense against an overmatched opponent, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day expected this: the game when the passes weren’t sailing through the air. with accuracy and ease to future NFL draft picks when the offense had to grind it out with the running game and the defense made the difference.
Day got the “ugly” 21-10 win against No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday night, and despite the sluggish offense, he got something else he was looking for.
“That was something we spent a lot of time in the offseason saying, ‘We’ve got to be able to win ugly on offense, we’ve got to stop the run on defense,'” Day said. “They’re all counting the same thing. And you have to figure out based on who you’re going up against, how do you want to win that game? When you’ve got that versatility, man, it’s going to pay off down the road.”
Ohio State’s offense, which was No. 1 in the country last year in efficiency, underwhelmed Saturday compared to the high preseason expectations that pegged the Buckeyes as a strong favorite to finish in the College Football Playoff. With a leading wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba sidelined by an injury he suffered in the first quarter, Ohio State struggled early against a gritty Notre Dame defense.
The Fighting Irish, led by popular first-year coach Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, came into Ohio Stadium and in front of an announced crowd of 106,594 gave the Buckeyes all they could handle late in the fourth quarter. Ohio State, which won games last season by an average margin of 29.1 points, was held scoreless in the second quarter and trailed 10-7 at the half.
It wasn’t until less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter that Ohio State sealed the win — thanks in large part to a 14-play, 95-yard drive that took 7:06 off the clock and gave the Buckeyes the 21. -10 lead
“We struggled early, just trying to get connection, trying to build that rhythm, but in the end, we started to get it, started to click more,” the Ohio State quarterback said. CJ Stroud, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s kind of weird being out there again, to be honest, seeing the fans, dealing with all the outside noise, just trying to get some closure.”
In the fourth quarter, Stroud completed 9 of 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. While it wasn’t exactly a splashy, Heisman Trophy-worthy performance, he reminded everyone of his playmaking abilities.
Ohio State entered this season as the No. 2 team after losing to rival Michigan and finishing No. 6 in large part because of the offensive firepower returning from a team that led the nation in scoring and yards per play last year. The Buckeyes have multiple Heisman hopefuls, including Stroud and running back TreVeyon Henderson, but when Smith-Njigba was injured in the first quarter, the Buckeyes were slow early. Last year, Ohio State averaged 27.2 points in the first half, the most of any team in the FBS. The Buckeye had seven Saturday night.
“Early games are a little awkward,” Day said, “and losing Jax threw us off a little bit.”
The defense, which was the problem for Ohio State last year, was the highlight on Saturday. It was a strong debut for first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who was hired from Oklahoma State. The Irish finished with 253 yards and a punt on their last six possessions.
“We were called soft all last year, and we had to sit there and just eat,” Ohio State defensive back. Lathan Ransom said
Day said the toughness was something the entire team sought to demonstrate.
“We wanted to be known as something other than just talented,” he said.
Notre Dame’s game plan was to hold the ball, control the clock and keep the Buckeyes’ offense off the field. The Irish were able to do that in the first quarter, but they finished with just 3 of 13 third-down conversions.
Day said he could see more teams trying to do that this fall but that he’s not worried about the passing game moving forward. Finally, there were other, lesser-known players who showed up for Ohio State, including a former walk-on Xavier Johnsonwhose 24-yard touchdown catch put Ohio State up 14-10 late in the third quarter.
“I love these guys,” Johnson said, “so with my legs empty, with all that, none of that mattered. It was all for the team and the glory of God.
“I was in a position to do what I was trained to do.”
Eventually they all were — even if it wasn’t pretty.
“It’s a huge emphasis to win like that,” Day said. “And it starts with defense. You can play a really good, strong defense like we played tonight, and we can run the football — we know we’re going to throw the ball, we know that — but if we want to go where we have to be and achieve our goals, we have to be able to do those two things.”