COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many outside the program were waiting to see No. 2 Ohio State unleash another potent offense against an overrated opponent, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day was waiting for this: a game where passes didn’t go through the air. Accurate and easily future NFL draft picks, the offense made the difference in the running game and the defense.
Day had an “ugly” 21-10 win over No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday night, and despite a lackluster offense, he got something else he was looking for.
“That’s what we spent a lot of time thinking, ‘We’ve got to win ugly on offense and stop the run on defense,'” Day said. “They all think the same. You have to figure out based on who you’re going against, how you want to win that game? When you have that diversity, man, it’s going to pay off down the road.”
Last year’s performance was No. 1 in the country. No. 1 Ohio State’s offense on Saturday fell short of lofty preseason expectations that had the Buckeyes as strong favorites to finish in the College Football Playoff. With the leading wide receiver Jackson Smith-Najikpa Sidelined by injury in the first quarter, Ohio State struggled early against a scrappy Notre Dame defense.
The Fighting Irish, led by popular first-year coach Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, came to Ohio Stadium and gave the Buckeyes all they could handle until late in the fourth quarter before a crowd of 106,594. Ohio State, which won games by an average margin of 29.1 points last season, was held scoreless in the second quarter and trailed 10-7 at the half.
Ohio State sealed the win with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter — a 14-play, 95-yard drive that took 7:06 off the clock and put the Buckeyes up 21. -10 lead.
“We struggled early, trying to get the connection, trying to get that rhythm going, but eventually, we started getting it and started clicking,” the Ohio State quarterback said. CJ Strode, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns. “Honestly, it’s kind of weird seeing the fans, dealing with all the outside noise, trying to get in, and being out again.”
In the fourth quarter, Stroud completed 9 of 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. While it wasn’t a splashy, Heisman Trophy-worthy performance, he reminded everyone of his playmaking abilities.
Ohio State has lost to rival Michigan this season and is ranked No. 2 team and ranked No. 6 in large part due to returning offensive firepower 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 backs Trevion Henderson, but the Buckeyes were out of the game early when Smith-Najikpa was injured in the first quarter. 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.
“The early games were a little chaotic, and losing Jackson threw us off a little bit,” Day said.
Defense, Ohio State’s problem area last year, was the highlight on Saturday. It was a strong debut for first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, hired from Oklahoma State. The Irish finished with 253 yards and a touchdown on their last six possessions.
“All last year we were called soft and we had to sit there and eat,” Ohio State defensive back Lathan Ransom said.
Day said toughness is something the entire team wants to demonstrate.
“We want to be known for something other than being talented,” he said.
Notre Dame’s game plan was to hold onto the ball, control the clock and keep the Buckeyes’ offense off the field. The Irish managed to do that in the first quarter, but they finished with 3 of 13 third-down conversions.
Day said he could see more teams try to do that this fall, but he’s not worried about the passing game moving forward. In the end, there were other, lesser-known players, including a former walk-on who morphed for Ohio State. Xavier JohnsonHis 24-yard touchdown grab late in the third quarter put Ohio State up 14-10.
“I love these guys,” Johnson said, “because my legs are empty, it doesn’t matter. It was for the team and for the glory of God.
“I was in a position to do what I was trained to do.”
In the end, they all are — even if it’s not pretty.
“It’s a big deal to win this way,” Day said. “It starts with defense. You can play good, strong defense like we played tonight, and we can run the football — we know we’re going to run the ball, we know that — but we have to be where we want to go and reach our goals, those two. We can do things too.”
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