COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many outside the program are waiting to see another strong offense from Ohio State’s second-placed opponent, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day is waiting for this: The game when the pass isn’t in the air picks future NFL draft picks with precision and ease, when the offense has to be honed by running the game, and the defense is different.
Day got what else he was looking for in an “ugly” 21-10 victory over fifth-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday night, despite a sluggish offense.
“It’s something we spent a lot of offseason saying, ‘We have to be able to win ugly on offense, we have to stop running on defense,'” Day said. “They’re all the same. You have to figure it out based on your opponent, how do you want to win that game? When you have that versatility, man, it pays off in the future.”
Ohio State’s offense ranked first in the nation last year, but compared with the lofty expectations of the Buckeyes as the college football’s best-performing preseason hopeful, Saturday’s offense was mediocre. Ohio State battled a gritty Notre Dame defense early on as leading wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was sidelined with an injury in the first quarter.
Fighting Ireland, led by popular first-year coach Marcus Freeman (former Ohio State linebacker), entered Ohio Stadium, giving the Buckeyes what they could handle in an announced crowd of 106,594 everything before the end of the fourth quarter. Ohio State, which won last season by a 29.1-point average, went scoreless in the second quarter and trailed 10-7 at halftime.
It wasn’t until less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter that Ohio State cemented the win — thanks in large part to a 14-game, 95-yard drive that put the Buckeyes down at 7:06 And got a 21-10 lead.
“We struggled at first, just trying to connect, trying to build that rhythm, but by the end, we started to get it, started to click more,” Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud said. Stroud said he completed 24 of 34 passes. 223 yards and two touchdowns. “Honestly, it’s kind of weird to be there again, seeing the fans, dealing with all the outside noise, just trying to lock in.”
In the fourth quarter, Stroud completed 9 of 10 passes for 107 yards and touchdowns. While it wasn’t a compelling, Heisman-worthy performance, he reminded everyone of his playmaking abilities.
Ohio State enters the season after a 6th-place loss to rival Michigan State, in large part because the team’s offensive firepower comes from a team that led the nation in scoring and yards per game last year . The Buckeyes had multiple Heisman hopes, including Stroud and running back Trevyan Henderson, but got out of hand early when Smith-Njiba was injured in the first quarter. Last year, Ohio State averaged 27.2 points per game in the first half, the most of any team in FBS. The Buckeyes have seven Saturday nights.
“The early game was a bit clunky,” Day said. “We were a little disappointed to lose Jaxson.”
Defense, which was Ohio State’s trouble spot last year, was Saturday’s bright spot. It was the debut of first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles hired from Oklahoma State. The Irish finished for 253 yards and played in their final six possessions.
“Last year we were called weak and we had to sit there and eat,” Ohio State defensive back Lethan Ranson said.
Day said the entire team wanted to demonstrate that resilience.
“We want to be seen as something more than just brilliant,” he said.
Notre Dame’s game plan is to control the ball, control the clock, and keep the Buckeyes offense off the court. The Irish were able to do it in the first quarter, but they made just three of their 13 third transitions.
Day said he could see more teams try to do so this fall, but he’s not worried about the passing game advancing. Ultimately, there were other lesser-known players at Ohio State, including former Pacers Xavier Johnson, whose 24-yard touchdown steal gave Ohio State a 14-10 lead late in the third quarter.
“I love these guys,” Johnson said, “so with my legs empty, it doesn’t matter. It’s all for the glory of the team and God.
“I have the ability to do what I’m instructed to do.”
In the end, they are all — even if it’s not pretty.
“Winning this way is a huge focus,” Day said. “It starts with the defense. You can play a really good, strong defense like we did tonight, we can play football – we know we’ll throw the ball, we know it – but if we want to get where we want to be we need to be And to reach our goals, we need to be able to do both.”