Ohio State football: Buckeyes win without the good stuff
In baseball, the best pitchers aren’t distinguished by the games when all of their pitches are working. Even journeymen will sometimes throw shutouts and no-hitters. No, the best of the best are determined by being able to win on the days when not everything is working.
In the midst of the World Series, then, maybe it’s appropriate that Ohio State borrowed the baseball analogy by picking up a 21-7 win over Northwestern on a day when plenty of the Buckeyes’ best options were sitting on the sideline or weren’t playing at a very high level.
Take the weather — please. Cold, rainy, windy, things only went south from warmups, when Noah Ruggles would try field goals against the wind only to watch his kicks arch in midair and blow straight down. OSU coach Ryan Day admitted after the game that he’d “never been around conditions like this.” Few who aren’t Arctic explorers have.
Missing on Saturday were TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Yes, OSU has carried on with each missing for parts of the season. While Miyan Williams is a quality back, the difference in a quality back versus a pair of quality backs is apparent. Smith-Njigba has basically been out or alll but out all season. A year ago, he caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards. This year, he’s at 5 catches for 43 yards. While Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka have picked up much of the slack, it’s hard not to miss one of the best receivers in the nation.
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Meanwhile CJ Stroud, maybe the most consistent quarterback in college football, had a very un-CJ Stroud kind of game.
Making his 21st start, Stroud had never before passed for less than 154 yards. In fact, only twice had he gone under 200 yards. Saturday, with a crazy, gusty wind and a drizzly rain, he passed for 76 yards. Not on one play — as he’s done more than a few times.
But with his usual strength — his throwing arm — de-emphasized, Stroud found another way to contribute. Heading into Saturday, Stroud had 24 yards rushing — in his 2 seasons plus a 2020 cameo. As a starter, Stroud had never rushed for more than 13 yards. Saturday, on a sloppy track, Stroud rushed 6 times for 79 yards, including a 44-yard run that finally broke the back of a resilient Northwestern defense.
“We had to find another way to win,” admitted Stroud.
Ohio State’s defense — as it has when the offense has lagged — picked up the slack. After Northwestern managed its lone score and 113 yards in the first quarter, OSU tightened up, allowing no more points and just 10 first downs and 172 more yards for the game. In the last 42 minutes of the game, Northwestern not only did not score — it did not move inside the Ohio State 35-yard line.
“There was a point in the game where the defense had a lot of energy and you could feel the field flipping,” said Day.
So the ingredients for Saturday’s success were a running QB, a patient defense and a team winning without even 100 passing yards (the last time that happened for OSU was 2016 against Michigan State). It’s not a recipe that Ohio State particularly likes — Day readily admitted, “I’m glad this game is over.”
But like a pitcher whose fastball wasn’t so fast, whose curveball wasn’t curving, OSU found ways to grind, to compete, and ultimately to win. Which has to bode well, because Ohio State’s best stuff is usually so consistent. But it’s easy when it all works. Saturday, it was anything but easy. But it was a win.