With its vaunted offense bogged down, No. 2 Ohio State leaned on its revamped defense in a top-five opener against a former Buckeye that tested its toughness.
C.J. Stroud threw two touchdown passes and Ohio State shut out No. 5 Notre Dame over the final 42 minutes in a gritty 21-10 victory on Saturday night.
“The story of the night was the defense, to turn around and play the way they did after what’s been said about them in the off-season, questioning their toughness, and play the way they did against the No. 5 team in the country ... I thought the energy was off the charts for the defense tonight,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
The first regular-season meeting of the storied programs since 1996 was a homecoming for first-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman. The former Buckeyes linebacker has made a meteoric rise to lead the Fighting Irish at the age of 36.
Freeman is 0-2 as a head coach after losing a bowl game just weeks after being named Brian Kelly’s successor.
The Irish hung with the high-scoring Buckeyes for most of three quarters, frustrating Heisman Trophy finalist Stroud and putting together a couple of first-half scoring drives.
“We battled for two and a half quarters, but then they scored with 17 seconds left in the third and we didn’t respond,” Freeman said.
Ohio State’s defense, too generous against the run last season, put the clamps on the Irish and new starting quarterback Tyler Buchner in the second half.
“We were called soft all last year and we had to sit there and just eat,” Ohio State defensive back Lathan Ransom said.
Day turned over his defensive staff in the offseason, bringing in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to be coordinator.
How quickly the Buckeyes would pick up a scheme that is considered more complicated and multiple than the one they have been running was an open question.
Looked good in game one. The Irish managed just 253 yards and punted on their last six possessions. Tommy Eichenberg had two of Ohio State’s three sacks.
“We got a lot to prove. And everyone just played extremely confident, too,” Eichenberg said.
The Irish D could only hold up for so long.
On a third-and-long, Notre Dame brought multiple blitzers and Ohio State gave Stroud plenty of time to find Xavier Johnson open down the vacated deep middle for a 24-yard score. That put the Buckeyes up 14-10 with 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
On its next drive, Ohio State asserted itself. The Buckeyes went 95 yards on 14 plays, killing seven minutes off the clock and making it 21-10 on a 1-yard surge by Miyan Williams.
Williams ran for 84 yards on 14 carries and TreVeyon Henderson had 91 on 15 attempts.
Ohio State led the nation in scoring and yards per play last season, but for much of the night it was a slog for Stroud. And Day seemed thrilled to see his team endure.
”We wanted to be known as something other than talented,” Day said.
Playing mostly without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who took a hard hit on the first series, Stroud threw for 223 yards, including a 31-yard TD to Emeka Egbuka to make it 7-3 in the first quarter.
But that was it for the Buckeyes in the first half.
Buchner and the Irish responded with a long drive capped by Audric Etime’s 1-yard touchdown leap in the second quarter to put the Irish up 10-7.
That’s how it went to the half. Things could not have gone much better for Freeman to that point in his return to Ohio Stadium, but it turned out that was as good as it would get.
Notre Dame: Buchner completed his first eight passes and then went 2 for 10 the rest of the way. The Irish got creative and made some big catches in the first half to move the ball, but ran out of answers.
“Ohio State’s a really talented team, they’re defense is awesome and you can’t give the ball back to their offense, so when it wasn’t clicking in the second half, it killed us,” Buchner said.
Ohio State: Smith-Njigba, last seen setting Rose Bowl records, finished with two catches for 3 yards. The Buckeyes boast receiver room filled with blue-chippers, but it was Johnson, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, who caught the go-ahead touchdown.
Johnson followed up his first career touchdown with a big tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
“He’s kind of a throwback player,” Day said. “And for him to come in and play in that moment in this game right here, I just couldn’t be happier for him. Because it shows you that good things happen to good people who work hard.”
Ohio State honored its 2002 national championship during a quick on-the-field ceremony in the first half with former coach Jim Tressel and dozens of former players, including Maurice Clarett.
Tressel reluctantly was hoisted onto the shoulders of two former players and the crowd roared.
The first game in the 100th season of Ohio Stadium drew 106,549 fans and attracted LeBron James and his son, Bronny, to the Ohio State sideline. With the NFL season a week away, former Buckeyes Justin Fields and Chase Young were in attendance, too.
Notre Dame: The first home game for Freeman is next week against Marshall.
Ohio State: Toledo visits the Buckeyes.