Emeka Egbuka had both a career-best game and the standout performance among all Buckeye wideouts in Saturday’s season opener. But his effort still seemed a bit overshadowed.
Despite hauling in a team-high nine catches, 90 yards and his first-ever touchdown while starting in place of injured teammate Julian Fleming, other developments at the wide receiver position stole most of the headlines against Notre Dame.
Perhaps most significant was the first-quarter hamstring injury suffered by star wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who even C.J. Stroud calls “the best player on our team,” which limited Smith-Njigba to just 15 snaps. Then it was the go-ahead touchdown caught by Xaiver Johnson in the third quarter – both a feel-good moment for a hardworking former walk-on and a crucial play for the result of the contest.
Outside of Egbuka’s position room, Miyan Williams and the Buckeye run game received no shortage of praise for their 95-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter, and the dominance of Jim Knowles’ defense eclipsed all else in Ohio State’s 21-10 win. Hell, even I overlooked the sophomore receiver on my list of Buckeyes who improved their stock the most over the weekend.
It might not have been a full-fledged star-turning performance for Egbuka this past weekend, but given the aforementioned injuries and momentum he gathered against the Irish, Egbuka is in prime position to seize his moment even more in the coming weeks. In fact, Stroud said Egbuka’s impressive first start was far from the best he has to offer.
“Emeka, he got to show a little bit of what he can do even though he can do more,” Stroud said at a press conference Tuesday. “And I feel like even in our pass game, he fits it perfectly. Him and Marvin (Harrison Jr.). And 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. But I feel like we'll do even more and more just with the work we put in and things like that.”
The battle between Egbuka and Fleming for Ohio State’s second starting outside receiver position appeared razor-close during the preseason. Both carrying five-star recruiting pedigrees into their college careers, Fleming’s extra year of experience and Iron Buckeye status over the offseason may have won him the job over Egbuka – at least for the season opener.
But Fleming, who has dealt with shoulder and hamstring injuries over the past couple years, tweaked an injury in the leadup to the season and was forced to sit out against Notre Dame. Still, the loss was hardly make-or-break for the Buckeyes, who still have an embarrassment of riches at wideout even without a projected starter on the field.
“Emeka, he got to show a little bit of what he can do even though he can do more."– C.J. Stroud
Then Smith-Njigba went down after being leveled on the sideline just eight minutes into the action at Ohio Stadium, and Ohio State felt the impact. Stroud and the scarlet and gray pass attack couldn’t find their regular rhythm, and finished the first half with just 99 yards in a game the Buckeyes trailed by three.
Luckily for Ohio State, Egbuka was still firing on all cylinders, racking up nearly two-thirds of the Buckeyes’ passing yardage by himself and drawing a pass interference penalty from the Notre Dame defense on top of it. The Buckeyes’ lone score of the first half came on a connection from Stroud to Egbuka, who raced 31 yards to the end zone on the same drive that Smith-Njigba was injured.
Ohio State's first touchdown of the 2022 season was a good one. pic.twitter.com/m5dtRPYLqD— Eleven Warriors (@11W) September 4, 2022
“I knew I was the read on that play, we've thrown and caught that ball 1,000 times in practice, especially a lot throughout that week,” Egbuka said Wednesday. “C.J. put it on the outside shoulder in the perfect place where it had to be, and there was just no one there when I turned up.”
Egbuka’s play both in the slot and on the outside was a life raft early for the Buckeyes, who found enough juice in the second half to put the Fighting Irish away by 11. Egbuka might have added a second score to his final game stats in the third quarter, but Stroud couldn’t hit him as he flashed wide open for a moment deep in Notre Dame territory.
That season opener indicated there may still be a feeling-out process taking place between Stroud and first-year starters like Egbuka and Harrison, as the latter hauled in just five passes of the 11 times he was targeted on Saturday. But Stroud is confident the on-field chemistry will continue to grow, which is a scary proposition for future opponents.
“Definitely just got to get through those things. I mean, me, Chris (Olave), Garrett (Wilson) and Jaxon went through that last season,” Stroud said. “Just feeling each other out and trying to make sure that we like what we're doing both ways. I mean, we all got to be on the same page. That's just different things like that. Definitely not anything alarming, we just got to be better, especially on my part.”
Next up for the Buckeyes is Arkansas State, and Toledo follows after that. But even if Ohio State faces lesser competition in the next couple weeks, that doesn’t erase the injury concerns for two of its top four pass-catchers.
Buckeye head coach Ryan Day said Tuesday he’s hopeful Fleming will return to the field this week, and that Smith-Njigba’s injury isn’t expected to be a long-term situation. Still, Day said he won’t risk the future health of the record-setting junior if he isn’t back to 100%.
Entering a game in which the Buckeyes are favored by 44 points, there’s no real reason to play Smith-Njigba, and perhaps Fleming could use more rest as well. If that’s the case this weekend, Egbuka might just be the focal point of a passing game that’s overdue for an explosive showcase after a ho-hum start to the year.
If that changes anything as far as Egbuka’s mentality, he’s not letting on. Egbuka’s still focused on team goals first, and thinks individual glory will follow as a result.
“I don't think it changes too much. You know, at the end of the day, football is football. I’ve played it my whole life, so has everyone else on the roster,” Egbuka said. “So I mean, we're gonna go out there Saturday and every Saturday to come, and we're just going to play the game that we love.
“It doesn't matter if you're the main target on the offense, you're just there to do your job. And if you do your job well, then it's gonna be a good day.”