While Vegas had Ohio State as 17.5 point favorites in this game, and everyone in the media was singing the praises of Ohio State’s offense–“They might average 50 a game!” “Three Heisman finalists!” “Greatest offense in the country easily!”–real Ohio State fans knew that this game was no sure thing.
For one thing, Ohio State has a well-documented record of losing big, non-conference home games against good teams early in the season. Interestingly, they have a much better track record on the road against good non-conference opponents early in the year.
They lost to Oregon last year at home despite being big favorites. They lost to Oklahoma at home in 2017 despite being favored (the Baker Mayfield “Flag plant” game). They lost to Virginia Tech badly at home early in the 2014 National Championship season–in fact it nearly kept them out of the playoff picture. And had it been under the BCS system, that 2014 Ohio State team would have never won a National Championship because of that ugly Virginia Tech loss. They lost at home to USC in 2009, they lost at home to Texas in 2005. Their only win at home, early in the season against a ranked, non-conference opponent in the past 15 years was against Miami in 2010. And that win has now been vacated.
This goes beyond Ryan Day, it goes beyond even Urban Meyer, and it goes all the way back to Jim Tressel. For some reason, Ohio State does not play well in these early season, non-conference matchups at home against good teams. So while all the media pundits and Vegas oddsmakers were installing Ohio State as heavy favorites, real Ohio State fans knew this was exactly the type of game Ohio State should be expected to lose.
Add on top of their disappointing history in these types of games, the Ohio State defense last year was horrendous and it was a major question mark coming into this game. Yes, everyone knows Ryan Day cleaned house and brought in Jim Knowles to revamp the defense. And yes, Jim Knowles was highly confident coming into this game. But it’s still the case that nobody knew what to expect out of this defense prior to about 7:45pm EST. Was the defense going to be 25% better? 50% better? Leaps and bounds better? Or perhaps not better at all? It was an unknown.
Lots of Buckeye fans were bracing for the worst–which was that Knowles hadn’t been able to fix the defense over the offseason and it would get absolutely steamrolled by Notre Dame like it did against Michigan and Utah and Oregon last season.
And I will just say: If Ohio State had lost this game, there would have been some grumbling on social media about Ryan Day, maybe even some heckles from the backbenches about bringing back Urban Meyer. I’m telling you, in that first half, it was on the minds of a not insignificant number of Buckeye fans.
Losing to Michigan last year, losing to Oregon, getting plowed by Bama in the 2020 National Championship Game, losing that heartbreaker to Clemson in the 2019 playoffs–there have been some high profile losses for Ryan Day during his tenure as Ohio State head coach. He’s 35-4 after tonight as head coach, but all four losses have been very high profile and on the biggest of stages, and had he lost this game to Notre Dame, there would have been a lot of discontent among the fanbase about how he can’t win the big one, his team is soft even though he was preaching toughness all offseason, he couldn’t beat Michigan (Urban never lost to them, you know!), he’s never able to put it all together, etc.
I’m telling you, there would have been some fans calling for Ryan Day’s job if Ohio State had lost this game tonight. It wouldn’t have been anywhere near a majority of the fanbase, of course, but it would’ve gotten ugly on Buckeye Twitter and on the message boards.
This was a game Ohio State had to win. With how last year ended, with the low-key pressure that was on Ryan Day, with the sky-high expectations for this season, and with all the superstars and Buckeye legends in attendance, it was a must-win game. You had LeBron and Bronny in the building–you have to win that game, man!
Not only was LeBron there, but Jayson Tatum was there, Joe Burrow, and dozens upon dozens of former Buckeyes like Zeke Elliott, Justin Fields, Chase Young, Terry McLaurin, Sam Hubbard, Orlando Pace and so many more. Plus, the 2002 National Championship team was in the house being honored. The amount of famous people at this game was incredible. Columbus really was the place to be tonight.
And that’s not even a full list. It was a truly star-studded affair.
On top of that, there were tons of elite recruits in attendance–not just Ohio State targets but recruits considering both Ohio State and Notre Dame. Chris Fowler said there were 10 uncommitted 5-star recruits on the sideline watching that game. This game was Ryan Day’s sales pitch to them.
So it was a huge win for Ohio State.
I never thought they were going to cover the 17.5, because of what I said earlier about their notorious early-season struggles against good teams, but also I just didn’t know if Jim Knowles would have that defense playing at a high level so quickly. And on top of all that, Notre Dame is a good team. Buckeye fans were throwing out all these lopsided predictions like 45-10, and Vegas fed into it all with that ridiculous 17.5 point line for the game.
Notre Dame was the 5th ranked team in the country. I know preseason rankings are largely a crapshoot and they tend to change wildly throughout the season. Oftentimes, preseason rankings are proven hilariously wrong over the course of the following 12 weeks. Like Oregon being ranked #11 coming into this year? That was clearly wrong. They got absolutely demolished 49-3 by Georgia today.
Georgia is really good, and they deserve credit. Any talk about a drop-off in Athens ought to be immediately ceased and desisted. They’re right back in the National Title hunt once again. But there’s absolutely no way Oregon is the 11th-best team in the country. They lost Mario Cristobal and their entire coaching staff in the offseason and now have former Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, a rookie head coach, plus a brand new staff. They lost Kayvon Thibodeaux to the NFL, they lost their QB Anthony Brown, their RB CJ Verdell, their other running back Travis Dye–they had 12 guys transfer out in the offseason after Cristobal left. They only had 3 guys transfer in, and one of them was Bo Nix from Auburn.
Oregon had the 60th-ranked recruiting class this year according to 247 sports. That is way below what they usually pull in.
I have no idea why Oregon was ranked #11 coming into this season. They look like a 4-5 loss team, and even that might be charitable. They had no business being ranked that high coming into the season.
Anyway, the point is, sometimes the preseason rankings are wildly wrong, but sometimes they’re pretty on the money. Oregon was wrong, but I think Notre Dame might be a legit top-10 team this year. Maybe not top-5, but definitely top-10, even with the new QB and the new rookie head coach in Marcus Freeman. I think this game being close was more a product of Ohio State playing poorly on offense for most of the game than it was Notre Dame making life difficult for them, but they still played tough. They were able to largely limit the big passing plays Ohio State loves to go for.
I think this game showed us Notre Dame probably doesn’t belong among the top-5, but they definitely belong in the top-10. I’d say no doubt they are a top-10 team in the country right now.
And so all this is to say I was dubious from the start that Ohio State would cover the 17.5 points. That’s a lot of freaking points against a top-10 team, and when you are installing a brand new defense, replacing two receivers that went in the high first round, and when your team at times looked Downy Soft™ last season, especially in the trenches.
Yet Ohio State actually came pretty damn close to covering that spread. They won by 11, but they also had a missed field goal in the first half by their normally reliable kicker Noah Ruggles (it was only a 39-yarder for Pete’s sake. College kickers are really something else…)
And honestly, they shouldn’t have even been kicking that field goal; they should’ve had a touchdown on that drive. Treyveon Henderson bounced a run down to about the Notre Dame 25 with 2 minutes remaining in the first half and Ohio State losing 10-7. They got no points out of that drive. Stroud just flat-out missed a wide open receiver (I think it was Egbuka but I can’t seem to find the clip on YouTube yet). If Stroud would’ve hit him with the throw, it would’ve been a first down–if Stroud would’ve actually thrown it to him when he was wide open, it was going for 6, or at the very least he would’ve been tackled very close to the goal line.
I mean, Ohio State had 395 yards of total offense. When you rack up almost 400 yards of offense, you should expect to score at least in the high 20s, if not the low 30s. You figure each drive is ~70-80 yards on average, and you gain 395 yards of offense, that should come out to 4-5 total scoring drives for you. But Ohio State only had three scoring drives.
They definitely could’ve covered had their offense been on its Ps and Qs all game long.
And that’s a topic I want to touch on here. Because Ohio State’s first seven possessions (excluding kneeling it out at the end of the first quarter) went as follows: punt, TD, punt, punt, missed FG, punt, punt. Excluding the TD drive in the first quarter, they gained 156 yards of offense on those 6 drives but got no points out of them. Stroud looked like he was not on the same page as his receivers, other than Emeka Egbuka (who had 9 catches for 90 yards–dude is a stud who stepped up big time. People had better get used to hearing his name because he broke out in a major way tonight and I think he’s here to stay). It just looked clunky, and something was clearly off. They couldn’t get much going in the run game, and the play calling was not great. It’s like they would throw on first down, the pass would go incomplete, and they’d be in bad situations all the time. It didn’t help that JSN had barely played at all in the game as he got hurt really early, but still, with the amount of talent on that offense behind him–Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr., plus the running backs–there’s no excuse for the offense to look as bad as it did early on.
Once the Ohio State offense started clicking in the late third quarter, they were able to put together a 10 play, 70-yard drive that resulted in a 24-yard TD pass to Xavier Johnson at the end of the third. It felt like once they got that, and took the 14-10 lead, it was pretty much in the bag. They had figured it out on offense, and Notre Dame just didn’t have the firepower to keep up with them once they were clicking.
The Ohio State defense forced ND to punt on the ensuing drive, and then the offense went on a 14-play, 95 yard drive that took up over 7 minutes of game clock in the 4th quarter, capped off with a Miyan Williams TD run to make it 21-10. That was basically all she wrote. The offensive line started bulldozing the Notre Dame defensive front, and Miyan Williams was picking up yards in chunks on the ground. That dude, Miyan Williams, by the way, is an absolute mauler. Runs angry and violently. Confirmed: Miyan Williams has That Dog In Him™. He really put the game away on that drive and was the battering ram for Ohio State. Major credit to Williams and the offensive for how they just pushed Notre Dame around in the 4th quarter. That was BIG BOY FOOTBALL™ on display, something that hasn’t been seen in Columbus in quite some time. Very encouraging.
I think if you’re Ohio State, your concerns about the offense were assuaged by the end of the third quarter. For two and a half quarters, it was like, “Uh, what’s happening right now? Why is the offense stuck in the mud?” But they eventually got it figured out, and I think they’ll only get better from here. CJ Stroud made some incredible throws, too. Some NFL-caliber throws.
But the real encouraging sign for Ohio State was the defense. The much-maligned, soft-ass defense from last year is nowhere to be found. In its place is a swarming front-seven with a bunch of speedy and violent pass rushers and run stoppers.
They held Notre Dame to 76 yards rushing on 30 attempts (2.5 YPC) and 253 yards total offense. They forced 8 punts, including forcing Notre Dame to punt on all four of its second-half possessions.
The defense looked incredible.
Jim Knowles after the game said “there’s still a lot we haven’t shown.” He said his defense showed some pretty basic looks, and there is a ton of room for improvement. That should be an encouraging sign going forward, because the defense was the reason Ohio State won this game tonight. The offense couldn’t get much of anything going for 2.5 quarters, but the defense played largely lights out and kept them in the game. And as good as the defense was statistically and in terms of points allowed, I think that’s even under-selling it a bit. Notre Dame’s offense, outside of a few lucky plays (or I guess wonky/improbable would be a better way to put it), didn’t have much of anything going.
Notre Dame got a field goal on their opening drive of the game, and it was largely due to Ohio State blunders. On the very first play of the game, Tyler Buchner got leveled by Ohio State’s JT Tuimoloau, but was able to complete a pass near the sideline to Lorenzo Styles. Styles broke free and ran 54 yards because the Ohio State DB, Josh Proctor, over-pursued and whiffed on the tackle. (Proctor was then benched for the remainder of the game.) It should’ve been like a 9 or 10 yard completion, but Styles spun out of the tackle, and had nothing but open field in front of him. He ran it all the way down to the Ohio State 31 yard line, plus the refs flagged Tuimoloau for his hit on Buchner (it was high) and tacked on 15 more yards. So after one play, Notre Dame had a first down on Ohio State’s 16. But the Buckeye defense was able to stonewall the Notre Dame offense and hold them to a field goal.
After that drive, I thought it was a moral victory for Ohio State that they held Notre Dame to 3 points. I thought the defense looked great, I thought they showed they could stop the Notre Dame offense on command, and I thought Notre Dame was screwed that they only ended up with 3 points. I figured that with the way Ohio State’s offense would be playing, they would be unbeatable if Notre Dame was forced to kick field goals. But obviously we know the offense played like crap for most of the game and the defense held things down.
There was another moment where Notre Dame got a fluky play that probably 9 times out of 10, you don’t get. It was 3rd & 2 from the ND 35 yard line at the very start of the second quarter, with Ohio State leading 7-3. Buchner threw it up deep to Salerno, who bobbled the ball while he was falling to the ground, and somehow it fell into his hands as he was laying on his back. It ended up being a 30 yard gain; it was very wonky; it reminded me of that Jermaine Kearse catch in the Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl back in 2014. So instead of the pass falling incomplete, Notre Dame now had a first down at the Ohio State 35. One play later, Buchner found the tight end (not Baby Gronk, the other tight end #84) across the middle running wide open and he made a nice one-handed catch and fell around the Ohio State 12 yard line. Notre Dame punched it in for a TD from the 2 yard line a few plays later at about the 12 minute mark in the second quarter to make the score 10-7, a score which would hold all the way to the end of the third quarter.
So Notre Dame’s two scoring drives had some very very wonky/fluky plays, without which I don’t think they would’ve scored. Baby Gronk also had a catch at one point in the third quarter where he just randomly fumbled the ball despite nobody on Ohio State knocking it out, but it just bounced right back to him and he was able to fall on it for a nice 17-yard gain. Obviously it wasn’t a scoring drive but he’s fortunate that wasn’t a turnover, because I think at the time Notre Dame was pretty deep in their own territory (in fact the play started from their own 16 and the fumble happened around the ND 30).
The takeaway here is that as good as the defense was tonight, I think they could’ve been even better if not for a few wonky plays. It’s true that the first play of the game was the Ohio State defender’s fault for over-pursuing and whiffing on the tackle, but let’s just call that early jitters and excitement.
Altogether, Ohio State only gave up 253 yards of offense, and 85 of those yards were on two fluky plays. Subtract those two plays from their 49 total offensive plays run and you’re looking at 168 yards on 47 plays, or about 3.6 yards per play allowed by the Ohio State defense. Notre Dame only got 72 yards of total offense in the second half of that game. That’s about as close to being shut down as it gets.
Jim Knowles did not have the luxury of going up against a few cupcake opponents to open up the season to really get his defense installed during live game action. Game 1 of the season was against a top-5 team. The defense had to be in mid-season form for Game 1, and I think it was. That should be highly encouraging for Ohio State. The defense has already improved by leaps and bounds from last season. It was so good tonight that the offense was basically asleep for 2.5 quarters and Ohio State still won by double-digits. You don’t expect a brand new defense to be ready to carry the team in a top-5 matchup in the first game of the season, but that’s exactly what happened.
I think the reason Jim Knowles was able to turn that defense around so quickly is because there was so much talent already on the roster, it just wasn’t being used properly by the previous defensive coaching staff. There’s a lot of guys on this Ohio State defense that were there last year. I want to shout out D-Lineman Michael Hall Jr., who was absolutely savaging the pocket and came through with the game-clinching sack towards the end, snuffing out any hope Notre Dame may have had. Dude is a one-man wrecking crew out there. I also want to shout out linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who came up big multiple times in this game.
The biggest difference right now, though, is the presence of Jim Knowles.
It really goes to show you how big a difference great coaches make. College football, more than really any other sport, is dependent on coaching. I always point out that when these top-level teams fall off from year-to-year, a lot of it has to do with them losing coordinators. Teams like Ohio State, Bama, Clemson, Georgia, etc., their offensive and defensive coordinators are highly sought after for head coaching gigs at other schools, and barely a year goes by where these coordinators are not poached.
A big part of the reason Clemson was so good for so long (besides getting two generational QB talents in DeShaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence) was that they had unmatched continuity with their coordinators. They had Tony Elliott as their offensive coordinator for at least 7-8 years now, and Brent Venables was the defensive coordinator for over a decade. With Elliott now coaching UVA and Venables now coaching Oklahoma, I think Clemson is going to be in for another rough season. You don’t just lose those longtime coordinators who brought you so much success and not miss a beat. You’re going to notice it.
Having continuity and consistency with your offensive and defensive coordinators is such a huge factor in college football. Alabama, for instance, had Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator from 2008-2015. They won 4 National Championships over that span. Now they’ve been able to win a couple without Smart, in 2017 and 2020, but Bama is no longer known for their stifling defense nowadays–they’re known for offense now. The Bama defense is still really good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as good as it was when Kirby Smart was there. Offensive and defensive coordinators are so crucially important in college football, and if you want to know why a given team suddenly looks so much worse (or better) on one side of the ball, it’s probably because they have a new coordinator in place.
It looks like Ohio State has found a really good defensive coordinator in Jim Knowles. And I think Jim Knowles will be around for a while, too. He’s 57 years old, he’s been a head coach before at Cornell (his alma mater) from 2004-2009, and he compiled a record of 26-34. I don’t know if he wants to go back to head coaching. I think he’s happy being a defensive coordinator. It also doesn’t hurt that Ohio State is paying him $1.9 million a year, which is more than most FBS head coaches make. I mean, sure, maybe one day in the future he’ll get an offer he can’t refuse for a head coaching spot somewhere, but I think he’ll be in Columbus for a while. That’s great news for Ohio State fans, because that’s really all Ryan Day needs: someone who can run the defense while he focuses on the offense. Ryan Day is pretty much all about the offense, specifically the passing game. And he does an incredible job with the offense.
He now has a guy running the defense that he can trust, and I think that’s huge for Ohio State. Let Jim Knowles do his thing with the defense–I’m sure he pretty much has complete control over it–while Ryan Day handles the offense and the recruiting (he’s excellent at both). I think it’s a winning formula.
I mean, you had CJ Stroud with a slow start to the game. JSN missed pretty much the whole game, as did another key wideout in Julian Fleming. And yet they were able to lean on the defense to get a huge win against a top-5 team.
The way I’ve looked at Ryan Day’s Ohio State teams the past couple years is basically, if they can get the defense figured out, they are going to be incredibly tough to beat, because that’s the only thing holding them back. The sky is the limit with their offense, and now that they have a legit defense? Watch out.
Summing it all up, yes, I think Ohio State looks pretty legit. It was a bit concerning that their offense was so ineffective for much of that game, but they eventually got it going. And I think they will only get better and better throughout the year. With Ryan Day running the offense, I think it’s the least of their worries, honestly. You know it will eventually get back up to an elite level sooner or later. It would have been concerning if the defense played poorly, because then it would be a “Here we go again” situation. But the defense played excellent. You know the offense will come around sooner or later. They’ve got some tune-up games the next couple of weeks, and I have no doubt Ryan Day will have that offense back up into the top-5 in the country eventually.
The special teams look great as well. The kick coverage team was laying the lumber on Notre Dame returners. That’s big for me–that’s something I really pay attention to: how hard are you hitting guys on kick returns? Alabama is notorious for just smoking guys on kick returns. It really sets the tone early in games when your guys are barreling down the field and just laying out kick returners at the 14 yard line. You hear that crack, the crowd goes wild–it’s important. There’s just something about a team that hits hard on kick return coverage. It shows the other team you’re not messing around. It’s intimidating. Ohio State was doing that tonight.
Ohio State punter Jesse Mirco also deserves a shoutout as well. Obviously nobody wants to see the punter out on the field, ever, especially on a team with an offense like Ohio State’s. But punters are crucial, and Jesse Mirco came up big for the Buckeyes. His first punt pinned Notre Dame at their own 5, his second punt pinned ND at their 13, and his third punt pinned ND at their own 5 again. His fifth punt pinned ND back at their 12 yard line. That is some high-quality punting right there.
Extra points for him because Jim Tressel was in the building, and Jim Tressel famously loved punters (he would always say that punt is the most important play in football.) Honestly, Jim Tressel has a point: when your punter is consistently pinning the other team deep in their own territory, it makes it so much easier on the defense, and when the defense is getting stops deep in the opponent’s territory, it results in good field position for the offense. Punters are unsung heroes, but good punters truly are difference makers. A good punt can bail out an offense that gets stalled out deep in its own territory.
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ohio State’s punting unit and give them some credit for how successful the defense was. Field position is massively important in football, and generally the team that wins the field position battle is going to win the game.
The one lingering question I have for Ohio State is this: Why doesn’t CJ Stroud ever run the ball? I feel like it would make their offense even more dangerous if defenses at least had to respect his ability to scramble, but he never does it. On the RPO plays, you know he’s never going to keep it, and I think it allows defenses to key on the run a bit better.
Maybe Ryan Day doesn’t want his star quarterback running the ball and risking an injury. I would totally understand if that was the case. But just a few scrambles or designed runs here and there, I think that would take Ohio State’s offense to another level. It’s not like Stroud is unathletic or anything–he’s excellent at rolling out of the pocket and making passes down the sideline while on the run. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself but he made some throws on the run last night that kind of reminded me of Josh Allen–Josh Allen is probably the best there is at making those sideline throws. Him and Mahomes. I saw Stroud making those types of throws tonight.
So yes, I do think Ohio State is a legit team. It took them a while to get going tonight, but once they did, that game was locked up. By the 4th quarter, it was perfectly clear that Notre Dame had no chance. Ohio State was in complete control in all facets of the game by the 4th quarter.
Are they ready for Bama and Georgia? I don’t know. Probably not yet. But it’s only week 1, and I think eventually they will get there. The real test will be Michigan, obviously, but I think if you’re Ohio State, you have to like where you are right now. They play Arkansas State and Toledo the next two weeks, then they host Wisconsin on September 24th. But the fact that they’ve already played a top-5 team and won in pretty convincing fashion, I think they’re set up for success. Notre Dame may well end up being the best team they face in this regular season, and they’ve already beaten them. That’s a big deal.
As for Notre Dame, I think they have a lot to build on here. They played pretty close to Ohio State for about 2.5 quarters. Now, as we went over, I think a lot of that was Ohio State shooting themselves in the foot. I think if Ohio State played its best game, it would have been a much more lopsided final score. I don’t think Notre Dame is particularly close to Ohio State.
But this was Marcus Freeman’s first real game as head coach (technically he did coach them in the bowl game last year as the interim HC). I think Notre Dame played Ohio State about as well as they could’ve, and that’s a good sign. In other words, I don’t if Brian Kelly was still coaching Notre Dame they would’ve won this game against Ohio State. I don’t think they would’ve been closer.
So that’s a good sign–no real drop-off from Brian Kelly. At least I don’t think there was.
I just think Ohio State is the more talented team with a much better quarterback. And Ohio State was playing at home. Notre Dame has nothing to be ashamed of here.
This is just the difference between a top-3 team and a top-5 team. There is a massive gap between Bama/Georgia/Ohio State and everyone else, including teams 4-10 in the rankings. The top-3 teams in the country are on a whole different level.
I would say that there’s a bigger gap between Bama/Georgia/Ohio State and Notre Dame than there is between Notre Dame and, let’s say, Baylor, the #10 ranked team. The top-3 programs in college football are just in a league of their own right now.