September's season opener isn’t “just another game” for Ohio State.
That already went without saying, given that Notre Dame may end up being the toughest team the Buckeyes face throughout the regular season. But the Buckeyes aren’t adopting that mindset as a means to lessen the pressure of the moment, either.
If anything, they seem to be leaning into it, as Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said last week at Big Ten Media Days he’s felt a palpable buzz from his team about the primetime Week 1 matchup in Columbus well before the start of preseason camp.
“It's been real. I think our guys feel it. I think they feel the excitement. I think they feel the anticipation,” Day said on stage at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “I think they just feel the community rally around this team. But that first game being a night game is – I mean, how else do you cut it? It's going to be electric, and our guys know that. So there's a little bit of urgency about them, and there's going to be this preseason.”
While the Notre Dame game is easily the most high-profile season opener of Day’s tenure at the helm of the program, it isn’t the first time he’s started a year with a nerve-wracking matchup. Just last season, Ohio State opened on the road against a dangerous and experienced Minnesota team not far removed from an 11-2 campaign in 2019.
Day has fewer question marks about his roster heading into this season than he did to start 2021, but said he’s drawing from the preparation for that matchup in much the same way – even if the competition will likely be far stiffer in a month’s time.
“Last year we started on the road at Minnesota, and that was a big conference game on the road with a very inexperienced team. So we had to play well in that game. That's similar this year,” Day said. “Now we're at home, a little bit more experienced team, but the plan's going to be the same. We've got to play really good football in that first game.”
Entering the Minnesota game, none of Ohio State’s quarterbacks had thrown a pass in a college football game. This year, C.J. Stroud returns as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner and potential top pick in next year’s NFL draft. Stroud suffered defeats in two big games as a redshirt freshman, falling to Oregon and Michigan in 2021, but those losses just might fuel the Heisman hopeful even more entering his second season as a starter under center.
Stroud said at Big Ten Media Days he’s already been studying the Fighting Irish defense “for a couple months now,” and that preparation should only increase his confidence as the 2022 season approaches.
“It's exciting for me, just because I've always dreamed of games like this. Since a kid, like primetime, night game, everybody watching. That's what you want if you're a competitor,” Stroud said. “So for me, it's a blessing from God to have that opportunity. So I'm just super excited to go out there, compete with them boys and see what they're about. I'm definitely super excited.”
Stroud and the Buckeyes’ goals go far beyond the first week of the season, but they know full well what kind of consequences could befall them if they stumble out of the gates. For that reason, Stroud isn’t expecting a cakewalk by any means, even if Ohio State is more than a two-touchdown favorite in the contest.
“Notre Dame is a great team, do a lot of great things, greatly coached. They do a great job on the defensive side,” Stroud said. “They have some great players, very dynamic players. So they do a lot of different things up front. They like to twist, turn, some different fronts. And then on the back end, not too sure because I think they changed defensive coordinators. But at the same time, I'm ready for everything. With a team like that, you've just got to respect them and I think it's gonna be a battle. It's gonna be a great game.”
More so than the potent Buckeye offense, it’s Ohio State’s defense that will have something to prove going into the first game. The Buckeyes gave up 87 points combined in the final two games of the 2021 season, and that was a chief reason why Day gutted his defensive coaching staff over the offseason.
"There is a little bit more attention to our guys just knowing what a big game we have to start the season off with.”– Ryan Day
Fourth-year safety Ronnie Hickman will be spearheading the leadership effort for Ohio State’s new-look Jim Knowles-led defense, and much like Stroud, he expects to rise to the occasion for a moment he said he’s envisioned since he was a kid.
“You know, you kind of grow up dreaming of games like this, playing in the Shoe and you're on your team with your fans at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night against a great program. You dream of nights like this,” Hickman said at Big Ten Media Days. “To be able to go out there with my brothers and have fun and ball out, it'll be huge. My family will be watching, so it'll be a blessing.
“We're going in there to win the game and I'm sure they are too.”
Day may prefer the Minnesota comparison, but a nightmare scenario for the Buckeyes would mirror their Week 2 loss to Oregon in another high-profile, early-season nonconference matchup at home last year. With that wound still fresh nearly a year later, Day is preaching consistent excellence to his group this year, as even a single loss could threaten its postseason hopes.
“I think, when you look at our season, we have to have competitive stamina. We have to play really good at the beginning of the year, and we've got to play really good at the end of the year,” Day said. “That's the challenge of being Ohio State, you've got to win them all. So competitive stamina is one of the things we've been talking about as a team.”
The expectations won’t be any different for Ohio State’s Week 1 opponent, though, and first-year head coach Marcus Freeman – not to mention Al Washington and James Laurinaitis, who are also on staff – are more than familiar with the Buckeye program.
For Ryan Day and the Buckeyes, that’s all the more motivation to dive head first into readying for a contest that could define the trajectory of their season.
“Marcus Freeman does a very, very good job. He's got a really good staff. They’re very knowledgeable, very energetic, do a great job recruiting, do a great job schematically,” Day said. “It’s going to be a really big challenge for us. They have a great team coming into Ohio State.
“All those things kind of have our guys’ attention. So I think there is a little bit more attention to our guys just knowing what a big game we have to start the season off with.”