Ryan Day didn’t want to start his press conference after Ohio State’s win over Notre Dame by talking about what didn’t go well.
Sure, the Buckeyes didn’t perform up to expectations on offense, as Ohio State scored fewer points than it had scored in any game since its 49-20 loss to Purdue in 2018. But the Buckeyes still exited Ohio Stadium on Saturday night with a win over a top-five team, at least as far as the preseason polls are concerned, as they earned a 21-10 victory over fifth-ranked Notre Dame.
So when the first question Day received in his postgame press conference was about the offense’s struggles, the Ohio State head coach immediately took things in a different direction.
“I refuse to answer that question right off the bat. We just beat the No. 5 team in the country by 11 points,” Day replied. “And I couldn't be any prouder of our team and the way that our team played, especially in the fourth quarter. A lot of people questioned our toughness going through the offseason. Well, you’ll have to watch the film, you make a decision if you thought that team was tough today. And for us to win the way we did, I couldn’t be any prouder.”
A victory was in doubt for most of the night, as the Buckeyes trailed for most of the second and third quarters and never led by multiple scores until there were less than five minutes remaining in the game. But the Buckeyes made the plays they needed to make on both sides of the ball to outlast the Fighting Irish with the game on the line.
Ohio State’s defense, as Day said, was “the story of the night,” as the Buckeyes held Notre Dame to only 10 points – fewer points than the Fighting Irish scored in any game last season, and fewer points than the Buckeyes allowed in all but three games last year. After two down years on that side of the ball, Ohio State’s defense made a massive statement in Jim Knowles’ debut as coordinator, holding the Fighting Irish to just 253 total yards of offense and zero points on their final six possessions.
“We were called soft all last year and we had to sit there and just eat it,” safety Lathan Ransom said after the game. “And couldn't wait to play against Notre Dame and show what our defense is really about.”
The Buckeyes’ offense, which came into the season opener with expectations of being the best in the country once again after leading the nation in both points and yards per game in 2021, didn’t look like a world-beater in their first game of the year. They scored just once on their first eight possessions of the game and clearly missed having a healthy Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the field after he suffered a leg injury in the first quarter that would ultimately end his night early after he tried to battle through it.
On their final drive of the third quarter and first drive of the quarter, however, the Buckeyes put together back-to-back touchdown drives that ultimately swung the game in their favor. While he wasn’t as sharp as usual for most of the night, C.J. Stroud completed nine of his final 11 passes for 107 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Johnson. And both Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson ran hard in the fourth quarter, combining for 85 rushing yards on 13 carries on the Buckeyes’ final two possessions to salt away the win.
“To be able to get the run game going in that last quarter, man, that says a lot of our team,” Day said. “Was it perfect? No. But I didn’t expect it to be. First game, things like this kind of happen and we had to kind of recalibrate a little bit and make some adjustments. But we will.”
Certainly, Ohio State does not want to make a habit of scoring only 21 points. The Buckeyes know they’re capable of being much more explosive on offense than they were on Saturday, which will give them plenty to work on coming off of the first game.
Day believes the fact that they had to win tough right out of the gates, though, will pay dividends as they continue forward through a season that could feature plenty of challenging opponents along the way. He’s confident his offense will get back to being explosive in future games, and if the Buckeyes can combine the ability to put up big numbers on offense with also having the ability to grind out tough wins by playing strong defense and getting tough yards in the running game, Ohio State will have a chance to win any game it plays.
“We have to find ways to win like that. Because there's going to be games certainly in the Big Ten like that. And Notre Dame’s kind of built like some of the Big Ten teams we play,” Day said. “That was something that we spent a lot of time in the offseason saying we have to be able to win ugly on offense. And we have to stop the run on defense. And that's what happened.
“When you have that versatility, man, it's going to pay off down the road … if we can continue to build like that and grow, and the defense plays the way it does, then watch out.”
“For us to win the way we did, I couldn’t be any prouder.”– Ryan Day
When asked if he took extra satisfaction in Saturday night’s win because the Buckeyes had to grind it out and win with toughness – something they’ve been questioned on a lot after their losses to Oregon and Michigan last season – Day said he did.
“Yes. Yeah. Because we can. And it's been a huge emphasis to win this way,” Day said. “And it starts with defense. And when you can play really good strong defense like we played tonight, if we can run the football; we know we'll be able to throw the ball, we know that. But if we want to go where we need to be and reach our goals, we're gonna have to do those two things. And tonight, we did.”