Hickey: Unlikely Ohio State blueprint puts Notre Dame win among Ryan Day's best
In the most unexpected development of Week 1, Ohio State won a game by playing like the rest of the Big Ten. And the Buckeyes’ ability to do so is something that should deeply concern the rest of the Big Ten in 2022.
With Jaxon Smith-Njigba — the best receiver in the country and the best player in the Big Ten — sidelined early due to injury, Ohio State’s offense was shockingly punchless in the first half against Marcus Freeman’s highly motivated Notre Dame team.
But that turned out to be fine. Because the Buckeyes were bailed out by — wait for it — their defense.
After getting gashed on a couple drives in the first half, new coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense pitched a shutout after the break and assured that Ohio State’s offensive struggles would not cause a panic. The defense was the single biggest reason for Ohio State’s 21-10 win, which is not a credit the unit could claim for any game in 2021.
The 2020 Big Ten championship win over Northwestern is likely the last time someone could say “You know, Ohio State’s defense really won this game.” Until Saturday night.
Jim Knowles earns his keep
Sure, Notre Dame was breaking in a new quarterback, running back and top wide receiver. And a new head coach. But last year’s Buckeye defense likely would have looked these gift horses in the mouth. This one did not.
There were no takeaways, but Ohio State finished with 6 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Most importantly, it limited the Irish to 3-of-13 (23.1%) on third down.
Last season, the Buckeyes were 13th in the B1G and 100th nationally on third down, allowing opponents to convert 40.1% of the time. Knowles was able to slice that nearly in half against one of the better opponents his defense may come across this season. If Ohio State can maintain an opponents’ conversion rate of 30% or less all season, it will be a top-10 national unit on third downs.
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Of course, it’s easiest to win third down when you’ve won first and second. The Fighting Irish faced an average distance of 7.6 yards to go on third down. That’s nearly impossible to overcome.
Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who made 3 of his 9 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, was the biggest menace. Defensive linemen Mike Hall Jr., Taron Vincent and Zach Harrison dominated a Notre Dame offensive line that is considered one of the nation’s best. And will likely prove that to be true over the course of the season.
Ohio State’s best defensive player, safety Ronnie Hickman, didn’t have to make many plays because it was so rare for the Irish to get into the second or third level of the defense. It’s a welcome departure from a year ago, when the Buckeye defense was basically “Hickman makes a tackle or bust.”
But the defense did not win this alone. The Buckeyes pulled through because Day called the fourth quarter like he was coaching at Wisconsin.
Woody would have loved it
If you’re old enough, Ohio State’s game-clinching drive probably brought a tear to your eye. This was Ohio State football as the world once knew it.
Fourteen plays, 10 of them runs, 95 yards. A whopping 7:06 milked off the clock before Miyan Williams plunged in for a 2-yard touchdown to put the game to bed.
No, there wasn’t a fullback on the field. So Day’s Woody Hayes/Jim Tressel tribute wasn’t that hardcore. But it was fitting that Williams was the primary back on the possession. The 5-9, 225-pound bowling ball has a fullback’s physique with a tailback’s speed.
It’s also fitting that Williams was the man on a night when Ohio State’s offense had to find answers.
With Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in the NFL, it was well-known Smith-Njigba was going to be the man for the Buckeyes this year. But an awkward landing on a first-quarter tackle meant quarterback CJ Stroud needed to find who else he could trust in this year’s receiving corps. Quickly.
Sophomore Emeka Egbuka showed he is likely to be 1 of those guys all year, catching 9 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. But behind him, no one had a true standout performance.
Marvin Harrison Jr. had 5 catches, but they came on 11 targets. Fifth-year senior Xavier Johnson was an unlikely hero, corralling a 24-yard third-down pass for his first career touchdown. If Smith-Njigba misses a long stretch of games, guys like Johnson will need to continue stepping up.
Or maybe Ohio State can just keep pounding the rock.
Few teams have defensive fronts capable of mashing Ohio State’s massive offensive line. The Buckeyes rushed for 85 yards in the fourth quarter alone after combining for 87 in the previous 3. And it’s likely they can finish anyone they want to in a similar manner. Whether it’s Williams running through people or TreVeyon Henderson dancing around tired defenders late in a game.
There was nothing pretty about Ohio State’s season-opening win. But it showed us more about this team than a work of art would have. These Buckeyes are tough.
Woody would have loved it. And Ohio State fans should too.