COLUMBUS, Ohio — While many off the schedule waited for Ohio State’s No. 2 to unveil another powerful offense against an overwhelmed opponent, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day waited for it — the game where the passes didn’t sail through the air with precision and ease to future NFL draft picks when offense had to grind it with the running game and defense made the difference.
Day notched the ugly 21-10 win over 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 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 all count the same. And depending on who you’re playing against, you need to figure out how you’re going to win this game? If you have that versatility, man, it will pay off later.”
Ohio State’s offense, which ranked No. 1 in the country for offensive efficiency last year, fell short compared to high preseason expectations that established the Buckeyes as heavy favorites for the College Football Playoff Finals. With leading receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba sidelined with an injury he sustained in the first quarter, Ohio State struggled early against a dismal Notre Dame defense.
The Irish, led by popular freshman head coach Marcus Freeman, a former Ohio State linebacker, came to Ohio Stadium and gave the Buckeyes everything they could handle in front of a announced crowd of 106,594 by the end of the fourth quarter. Ohio State, which won games by an average margin of 29.1 points last season, remained scoreless in the second quarter and trailed 10-7 at halftime.
With less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ohio State cemented the win — thanks in large part to a 14-play for 95 yards that went 7:06 off the clock and gave the Buckeyes a 21-10 lead.
“We struggled early on, just trying to connect, trying to build that rhythm, but towards the end we started getting it, started clicking more,” said quarterback CJ Stroud, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns. “To be honest, it’s kind of weird to be back out there, seeing the fans, dealing with all the noise from outside and just trying to shut yourself in.”
In the fourth quarter, Stroud completed 9 of 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. Though it wasn’t exactly a sparkling Heisman performance, he reminded everyone of his playing skills.
Ohio State entered this season as the No. 2 team after losing to rival Michigan to finish 6th, thanks in large part to offensive firepower returning from a team that crushed the nation last year in terms of goals and yards per game. The Buckeyes have several Heisman hopes, including Stroud and running back TreVeyon Henderson, but when Smith-Njigba was injured in the first quarter, the Buckeyes were off balance early on. Last year, Ohio State averaged 27.2 points in the first half, the most of any team in the FBS. They had seven Saturday nights.
“Early games are a bit clunky,” Day said, “and losing Jaxon upset us a bit.”
The defense, which has been the trouble spot for Ohio State for the past year, was the highlight Saturday night. It was a strong debut for Jim Knowles, first-year defense coordinator hired by the state of Oklahoma. The Irish finished with 253 yards and punted on their last six possessions.
“We’ve been called soft all last year and we’ve had to sit there and just eat,” Ohio State Defense Attorney Lathan Ransom said.
Day said the toughness was something the entire team wanted to prove.
“We wanted to be known as something other than just talented,” he said.
Notre Dame’s game plan was to keep the ball, control the clock, and keep the Buckeyes’ offense off the field. They managed to do that in the first quarter, but ended up with only 3 out of 13 third down conversions.
Day said he could see more teams attempting that this fall, but he’s not worried about the passing game progressing. Ultimately, there were other, lesser-known players who showed up for Ohio State Saturday night, like 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 empty legs it didn’t matter. It was all for the team and the glory of God…I was able to do what I was coached to do.”
In the end they all were – even if it wasn’t pretty.
“It was very important for us to win that way,” said Day. “And it starts with defense. They can play a really good strong defense like we played tonight and we can let the football run – we know we’re going to throw the ball, we know that – but if we want to go where we need to To be and achieve our goals, we need to be able to do both of those things.”
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/34521365/ugly-win-notre-dame-just-buckeyes-needed ‘Ugly’ win over Notre Dame just what Buckeyes needed