Ryan Day had just issued a “thank you” to the media for its patience while he dealt with his emotions regarding Lou Holtz’s comments on his team’s physicality and was turning to leave the lectern when a single word from a reporter pulled him back in.
Day stopped in his tracks and returned to his spot.
“Yeah, I’ve got to talk about the defense,” Day said excitedly, as the press room erupted in laughter. “I thought the defense hung in there. (Notre Dame) had the ball for 35 minutes and they were out there for what seemed like forever... but they hung in there, they played well. I don’t know how many explosives (they allowed), but I don’t think there were very many big plays, and that was a big thing going into this season. They played tough and they didn’t give up explosive plays.”
It wasn’t that everything went according to plan for Ohio State’s defense against Notre Dame on Saturday.
The Fighting Irish wore on the Buckeyes with their running game and used it as the catalyst for back-to-back touchdown drives of 11 plays or more in the second half to go from down 10-0 to up 14-10 as the game hit its home stretch.
But a first-half shutout in bend-but-don’t-break fashion and a key final stop with under two minutes to play meant that the Silver Bullets did just enough to win the day.
“Sometimes you’re up against the breaks, and we were for a couple series,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “Proud of the guys. Fourteen points is still a really good effort. But we were up against it for a couple of series and to be able to (stiffen) up and get a stop was great.”
While the Buckeyes gave up four big plays of 20 yards or more, they surrendered none that went 30 or more like the big touchdowns that cost them against Michigan and Georgia in 2022.
Notre Dame drove to within Ohio State’s 40-yard line three times in the first half. The Fighting Irish fought their way to the red zone on their first possession, nickel and diming the defense with short passes to reach a 4th-and-1 at the Buckeyes’ 18 after gaining 71 yards in 13 plays.
Quarterback Sam Hartman attempted to scramble for a first down after a play-action fake but was chased out of bounds by linebacker Cody Simon just short of the line to gain in a call reversed by replay.
Another long Notre Dame drive ended with a missed 47-yard field goal, securing the Buckeyes’ first-half shutout.
“Sometimes, when an offense drives the ball, we’ll talk about the next play and making a stop and in the red zone and winning those situations,” Knowles said. “It’s just something that we emphasize. A defense has to be resilient. It’s not all going to go your way.”
The Golden Domers took the ball to start the second half and pieced together another long drive, marching 36 yards in seven plays this time before landing at another 4th-and-1 at Ohio State’s 39-yard line.
Hartman took a snap from under center for a quarterback sneak and attempted to jettison outside after the middle of his offensive line was stuffed. There, he was met by safeties Sonny Styles and Lathan Ransom, who stood him up for no gain and a turnover on downs that preserved Ohio State’s 3-0 lead.
Sonny Styles is him. pic.twitter.com/AVvUStaEUT— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) September 24, 2023
“Huge. Huge. Huge,” Day said.
“I don’t know that we had practiced that call,” Knowles added. “It slid right to him.”
Despite some of those successes halting long drives after keeping big gains contained, Knowles noted that his defense still isn’t embracing a conservative strategy that aims to allow offenses to gain yards but limit scoring.
“We’ll never take that approach,” Knowles said. “I feel like we gave up too many explosives tonight. I feel like coming out of this, defensively, 14 points is great. We made enough stops early on that kept our team in the game. But I know we can do better. I know we can do better. To me, it’s a great team win all across the board and we’ve got to keep making the defense better.”
Some of the top areas of struggle Knowles alluded to popped up on Notre Dame’s next two drives.
The Fighting Irish went 75 yards in 13 plays to cut Ohio State’s lead to 10-7 with 3:35 to play in the third quarter, then trudged 96 yards in 11 plays to take a 14-10 advantage with 8:22 left in the game.
The two possessions ate up a combined 14:21 of game time. Notre Dame ran the ball 17 out of its 24 plays on those drives, gaining 85 yards, an average of 5.0 yards per carry. It seemed to open up the passing game for the Fighting Irish as well, as Hartman completed two of his three throws that went for more than 20 yards Saturday on the latter drive.
Still, as the Fighting Irish converted back-to-back first downs with the lead and the clock dwindled under three minutes, it was defensive end JT Tuimoloau that corralled Hartman for a 5-yard loss with cornerback Davison Igbinosun, then broke up a screen pass to force a 3rd-and-15 that led to a Notre Dame punt and Ohio State’s game-winning foret down the field.
“Second half, we were having some issues against the run,” Knowles said. “Last drive, we made some adjustments. We had to get more guys down in the box, it’s just the way the game was going. But JT made a couple of great plays. You need the guys that are going to make the big-time plays at the end.”
Entering the team’s off-week, Ohio State’s defense will look to continue making the plays it needs to deliver wins.
“It’s just a matter of having guys who are tough and willing to fight, even when we’re down,” Knowles said. “Because I always tell them, ‘Hey, any of the bad plays are on me, all the good plays are on you.’ And I think they believe that. They keep coming back. They know I’ll take responsibility for any bad plays and keep coming back to make the good ones.”