The possibility of Ohio State’s offense looking anything less than spectacular was hardly even a talking point leading into the season opener. If the Fighting Irish were to upset the Buckeyes on their home turf, surely Jim Knowles’ defense would be at fault.
But the Buckeyes went into halftime trailing Notre Dame 10-7, and the blame rested squarely on the shoulders of a unit whose sensational start to the season was all but assured before kickoff. Ohio State totaled merely 149 yards through two quarters, and the most vital question for the Buckeyes’ chances at a comeback victory was whether or not its typically explosive offense could spring to life.
It did that, closing the game on a 14-0 run in the second half to finish with a 21-10 win, but there’s no doubt it was an off night for Ryan Day and company. Ohio State turned in its lowest point total since 2018 and had fewer yards of total offense (395) than in any game a year ago.
Still, the level of concern about Ohio State’s early offensive struggles isn’t exactly high at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center this week.
“Looking back, we could have been more efficient, certainly in the first half on offense, because every play matters in those styles of games,” Day said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But I thought the attitude was excellent. I thought the toughness was excellent, I thought the way we played; we took care of the football, we tackled well, those are the things you need to do in opening games. And certainly with the help of the crowd, we were able to kind of push through in the fourth quarter.”
Perhaps the Buckeyes’ most impressive offensive feat of the game was a 14-play, 95-yard fourth-quarter drive that took more than seven minutes off the clock during a one-score game. The drive was punctuated by a two-yard touchdown run by Miyan Williams, who ran for 49 yards on that possession alone, to put the Fighting Irish away.
While effective, the drive still didn’t resemble Ohio State’s usual brand of high-flying offense in the Day era.
“It was a seven-minute drive there in the fourth quarter where typically in the past, we'd be going a little faster, and maybe trying to score a little faster,” Day said. “But we were controlling the game and we felt like if we scored there, we can make it a two-score game. And if we got one more stop, the game was probably over. And again, that's not typically how maybe we've done things in the past here, but when you're playing good defensively and you're running the football, a win’s a win.”
Day joked that with Jim Tressel and the 2002 national championship-winning Buckeye team in the building, his slightly more conservative play calling was something of an homage to a bygone era of college football.
“I put our success on winning. I just want to win, I mean I don't care how much I throw for, touchdowns, it really doesn't matter. We did all that stuff.”– C.J. Stroud
“I think that there's a huge part of Buckeye nation that likes the way we played. You know, just gritty, tough, physical, 100th year anniversary in the Shoe, a little bit of a throwback game maybe,” Day said in jest. “We had a couple plays for the fullback, didn't quite get to them, but they were they were ready. We did get pretty big down in the red zone once. I know Coach Tressel was looking for the power play, we didn't get that one in there. But no, it was great.”
More than anything, Day was pleased with Ohio State’s defensive effort and ability to run the ball late to burn clock and tally a win against a top-five opponent. But perhaps C.J. Stroud, who had the second-worst performance of his career in terms of passing yardage in a start (223), would be a bit more critical of the Buckeye effort.
Instead, Ohio State’s quarterback said season openers are always tricky, and especially against a top-flight opponent like Notre Dame. Given those circumstances, Stroud is more than happy to start the year in the win column, even if he admits the Buckeyes have plenty to clean up on offense.
“Just looking at the film, definitely think we did some great things on offense, moving the ball when we had to,” Stroud said. “Definitely seeing a lot more man than we expected, so just gotta clean some things up on man-on-man routes. … Pass protection was amazing all night. My O-line did a great job, and they didn't even drop nine and we still got a third-down conversion, so I'm proud of my guys for just keep fighting out.
“Not knowing all the looks we were gonna get going into Week 1, so especially a tough team like Notre Dame, No. 5 team in the country, so it was kind of tough knowing that they're going to do some different things and I feel like we handled it well all week at practice. So I'm happy with the victory.”
Of course, another key factor in the Buckeyes’ lack of dominant success on offense was the loss of one of its top players, as Jaxon Smith-Njigba played just 15 snaps due to a hamstring injury suffered in the first quarter. Stroud was left without his top target in the passing game, and couldn’t quite get his usual rhythm going as a result.
“It just affects your whole offense. I mean, he's the best player on our team, if you ask me,” Stroud said. “But it is what it is. Jaxon, he'll come back and do great things. But yeah, it definitely does affect our offense. It does affect our team because he's just loved on the team on a personal level. So you never want to see your brother go down, especially when you see all the work he puts in the offseason and you're grinding so hard and it kind of sucks for him not to bear the fruit of his labor, but it is what it is. God has a plan for us.”
Ohio State was also without projected starting wideout Julian Fleming, who tweaked an injury in the leadup to game week, which meant Emeka Egbuka and Xavier Johnson had to step up and make huge touchdown grabs for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
The moment Ohio Stadium was brought back to life. pic.twitter.com/TVRjxGrDOh— Eleven Warriors (@11W) September 4, 2022
Ohio State's first touchdown of the 2022 season was a good one. pic.twitter.com/m5dtRPYLqD— Eleven Warriors (@11W) September 4, 2022
No Buckeye receiver topped the century mark yardage-wise against Notre Dame, but Stroud is confident that a similar by-committee approach among that group will lead to more success moving forward, even if injury issues persist at the top of the depth chart.
“I feel like we did everything that we were supposed to do, with or without him,” Stroud said. “Everything happens for a reason. So I feel like X will step up big, Emeka again, Marvin (Harrison Jr.) again. (Jayden Ballard) will have a good game again, and the younger dudes, we're calling them to step up. So it's an opportunity for everybody to have a good game and try to go out there and dominate and try to compete.
“So I'm not sure what we have to do better than what we did in the Notre Dame game. Top-five team, so it's kind of tough to just pick them apart all the way. As the season goes on, we'll get better at that. So just excited for that.”
Stroud is content with the win and said he’s focused more on allowing himself to enjoy his victories – flaws and all – this season. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely satisfied. Stroud said the Buckeyes only showed a portion of what they’re capable of against Notre Dame and looks forward to getting back into the swing of things in the weeks to come.
“I feel like that first game kind of just put a little taste in people's mouths of what we can do a little bit,” Stroud said. “But I feel like we'll do even more and more just with the work we put in and things like that.”
Either way, though, Stroud isn’t prioritizing individual stats for himself or the Buckeye offense this year. Stroud said he racked up plenty of those last season and wants to accomplish something more in 2022.
“I put our success on winning. I just want to win, I mean I don't care how much I throw for, touchdowns, it really doesn't matter,” Stroud said. “We did all that stuff. So I feel like we'll continue to – hopefully we are the No. 1 offense, we want to be, but it's not our main goal anymore. We just want to win games. So I mean, at the end of the day, that's all that matters.”