‘Down and dirty’: Ohio State finds a way to win ugly

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports College Football Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ryan Day walked into Ohio State’s postgame interview room Saturday smiling. Actually, he was giddy.

Yes, the second-ranked Buckeyes had just beaten fifth-ranked Notre Dame 21-10 at a roaring Horseshoe to open the season. But this wasn’t the 45-point, offensive explosion of a performance we were all expecting. This was gritty. 

Ohio State’s offense had to run the ball and the defense had to grind it out and make big plays, which is the opposite of a signature Day win. His teams pass the ball. A major storyline for months this offseason was just how lethal Ohio State’s passing game was going to be with the connection between C.J. Stroud, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, probably the country’s best wide receiver.

[How Jaxon Smith-Njigba became the next great Ohio State receiver]

But that’s not how this game was won. And Ohio State’s coaching staff couldn’t have been more excited about it.

“A lot of people questioned our toughness this offseason and for us to win the way we did, I couldn’t be any prouder,” Day said.

“Who said it had to be a track meet?” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson yelled in the tunnel after the game. “We can get down and dirty!”

No. 2 Ohio State outlasts No. 5 Notre Dame

No. 2 Ohio State outlasts No. 5 Notre Dame

RJ Young breaks down Ohio State’s 21-10 victory over Notre Dame. C.J. Stroud was huge for the Buckeyes, completing 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards.

Ohio State’s original game plan derailed early when Smith-Njigba was shaken up in the first quarter. He was knocked out of bounds after a catch, which forced him to miss the next few series. He tried to come back in the second quarter, but was favoring his left side. He also tried jogging on the sideline under the supervision of an athletic trainer, but was in and out of the injury tent.

Ohio State needed to win without him. 

“Yeah, it was a struggle early on,” said Day, who expects Smith-Njigba to be back sometime this week. “When we lost Jaxon, we got a little bit out of rhythm, couldn’t convert on third down, a lot off schedule with a couple penalties that we’ve got to clean up. 

“But you know, early games, we’re a little bit clunky. And again, losing Jaxon kind of threw us off a little bit, and we had to respond.”

Ohio State has a plethora of receivers at Stroud’s disposal, like Emeka Egbuka, who had nine catches for 90 yards, and Marvin Harrison Jr., who had five catches for 56 yards. Stroud also has Xavier Johnson, a former walk-on turned scholarship player, whose 24-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left in the third quarter put the Buckeyes up 14-10. But Smith-Njigba has a shot at winning the Biletnikoff Award, so the vibe is off when he’s not playing.

Plan B was committing to the run, which Ohio State did in the fourth quarter. TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams combined for 175 yards and a touchdown. And on a 14-play, 95-yard touchdown drive that clinched victory, Ohio State ran the ball 10 times, seven by Williams, who racked up 49 of his total 84 yards right then. He also had a catch.

[Heisman Watch: How the preseason top 10 performed in Week 1]

It’s worth wondering how the game might have unfolded had Ohio State committed to the run earlier. If Day hadn’t waited until the fourth quarter, maybe the Buckeyes would have put Notre Dame away sooner. 

“We have to be able to win that way, we do,” Day said. “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 is kind of built like some of the Big Ten teams we play. And so for teams that want to run the ball and eat up the clock and keep the offense off the field, we have to run the ball in those moments. And we did. We had to do that. And 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 stop the run on defense. And that’s what happened. 

“They all count the same. When you have that versatility, it’s going to pay off down the road. So this is a huge start for us. We have a lot to improve on, a lot to build on, but I’m proud of our team.”

Stroud went 24 of 34 for 223 yards and two touchdowns and made some huge plays down the stretch. Many of those were scrambles on the run where it looked like he was about to go out of bounds, but instead completed a 12-yard pass to Williams here and a nine-yard pass to Harrison Jr. there. 

“I think you can see who C.J. wants to be,” Day said. “He could want to go out there and have all these yards and everything like that. It’s not important to him. What’s important is winning, and he’s a winner.”

[RJ Young’s Top 25 after Week 1]

Notre Dame was a formidable opponent that likely surprised everybody outside of South Bend. It held Ohio State to 99 passing yards in the first half and one touchdown before the final three drives. For a good chunk of the game, the Fighting Irish were more dominant in the trenches, which is an area Ohio State has strived to be better. 

Ultimately, Ohio State’s defense, a retooled group under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, held the Irish to one touchdown and 253 total yards. They stopped the run, holding Notre Dame to 76 yards on 2.5 yards per carry.

“The story of the night was the defense,” Day said. “It turned around after what’s been said about them in the offseason, questioning their toughness.”

“We were called soft all last year and had to eat it,” added safety Lathan Ransom.

[Top plays from Week 1 in college football] 

There was a lot of hype surrounding Ohio State this offseason. Day’s team is a favorite to win the national championship, and that trickled down into the atmosphere at the home opener. Noted famous Buckeyes fan LeBron James was walking the sidelines before kickoff, as was Jayson Tatum, Andre Iguodala, Justin Fields, Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Burrow, plus the entire 2002 Ohio State national championship team, which was honored during the game. It took awhile for the Buckeyes to settle in and click, and while they relished the environment, the pressure didn’t help. 

“I mean, thinking about the game, we’re playing the No. 5 team in the country,” Stroud said. “It’s kind of weird being out there again, to be honest. It’s like, seeing the fans, dealing with all the outside noise and trying to lock in. At the end of the day, we got the win.”

The expectation at Ohio State is to win the national championship. This is a group that truly believes last year’s 11-2 season, in which it won the Rose Bowl, was a failure. The Buckeyes’ goals are to beat Michigan, win the Big Ten and win a national title. All of those things are still very much possible, but there is work to be done. This team is not quite on the same level as Alabama or Georgia just yet, but there is still time to get there.

“If we can continue to win games like that, then that’s how we’ll win games,” Day said. “And when you can win in different ways, it says a lot about your team and I think this game is going to pay dividends down the road.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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