COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many sat outside the program waiting to see No. 2 Ohio State unveil another powerful offense against an overmatched opponent, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day was waiting for this: the game in which the passes didn’t fly through the air with precision and ease to future NFL draft picks, when the offense had to work it out with the running game and the defense made the difference.
Day took the “ugly” 21-10 win against No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday night, and despite the slow attack, he got something else he was looking for.
“That was something we spent a lot of time on off-season saying, ‘We have to be able to win ugly on offense, we have to stop the attack on defense,'” Day said. “They all count the same. And you have to figure out based on who you’re up against, how you want to win that match? If you have that versatility, man, it will pay off later.”
Ohio State’s offense, which ranked No. 1 in the nation in efficiency last year, fell short on Saturday compared to high preseason expectations that saw the Buckeyes a strong favorite to finish in the College Football Playoff. With leading wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba sidelined due to an injury he sustained in the first quarter, Ohio State struggled early against a gritty Notre Dame defense.
The Fighting Irish, led by popular freshman coach Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, entered Ohio Stadium and before an announced crowd of 106,594 gave the Buckeyes everything they could handle until 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 halftime.
It wasn’t until less than five minutes into the fourth quarter that Ohio State cemented 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 in the beginning, just trying to get a connection, trying to build that rhythm, but by the end we started to get it, we started clicking more,” said Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, who is 24 of the 34 passes completed for 223 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s a little weird to be there again, to be honest, seeing the fans, dealing with all the noise from outside, just trying to shut in.”
In the fourth quarter, Stroud completed 9 out of 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. While it wasn’t exactly a smashing, Heisman Trophy-worthy performance, it reminded everyone of his playing skills.
Ohio State entered this season as the No. 2 team after losing to rival Michigan, finishing No. 6 in large part because of the offensive firepower that returned from a team that led the nation in scoring and yards per game last year. The Buckeyes have several Heisman hopefuls, including Stroud and running back TreVeyon Henderson, but when Smith-Njigba was injured in the first quarter, the Buckeyes were upset early on. Last year, Ohio State averaged 27.2 points in the first half, the most of any team in the FBS. The Buckeyes had seven Saturday night.
“Early games are a little awkward,” Day said, “and losing Jaxon kind of freaked us out.”
The defense, which was the trouble spot for the state of Ohio last year, was the highlight on Saturday. It was a strong debut for freshman defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who was hired from Oklahoma State. The Irish finished with 253 yards, kicking their last six possessions.
“We were called soft all year last year, and we had to sit there and just eat,” said Ohio State Defender Lathan Ransom.
Day said the toughness was something the whole team wanted to prove.
“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’ attack 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 attempting to do that this fall, but he’s not worried about the game’s progress. In the end, there were other lesser-known players who came forward for Ohio State, including former walk-on Xavier Johnson, whose 24-yard touchdown grab gave Ohio State a 14-10 lead 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 coached to do.”
In the end they all were – even if it wasn’t pretty.
“It’s been a huge emphasis to win this way,” Day said. “And it starts with defense. You can defend really well and strong like we played tonight, and we can play football — we know we’re going to throw the ball, we know that — but if we want to go where we need to be and our achieve goals, we have to be able to do those two things.”