Lessons learned from OSU, Notre Dame game

Harold Hamilton

In the past, powerhouse teams usually started the season playing lesser teams to assure an easy win. They were kind of a tough scrimmage, so to speak. An opportunity to find out where their weaknesses are and correct them before things got serious. If, by some fluke they lost – like when #5 ranked Michigan was beaten by little old Appalachian State and fell out of the top 25 in 2007 - they would still have a full season to regain their rating. Not so anymore. Many teams are now starting out the season with very tough games and #2 ranked Ohio State University Buckeyes versus #5 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish were expected to be one of the toughest. These two teams have played football more than 100 years and have more fans nationwide than any schools in the country. OSU and ND have only played six times, the last being in the Fiesta Bowl in 2016, which the Buckeyes won. These teams are among the most successful college football programs of all times. OSU ranks 3rd in all-time wins (942). Notre Dame is 4th (929). Each has 7 Heisman Trophy winners.
Last year, OSU was viewed as having the best offensive in the nation that overwhelmed their opponents with an aerial attack so powerful that they simply outscored the opponent and won - even with a #49 ranked defense. They were seen as a team that was very talented but not very tough, especially on defense. The questions for the Buckeyes this season are, “Can the running backs and defense get tougher?” and “Will the defense make the much needed improvements under their new defensive coordinator?”
For Notre Dame, there are two major questions: “How will their new, 30-year-old coach, Marcus Freeman, a four year football letter winner when he played for the Buckeyes, do in his first outing as ND’s Head Coach. Last year Marcus was defensive coordinator for the Irish and made a major team transformation on that side of the ball. Will the newly promoted young Marcus be able to do the same thing with the offense this year? In addition, Coach Freeman announced that he will be starting a new, sophomore quarterback, Tyler Bucher. Tyler played in 10 games last year but never started. How will he manage the pressure of this assignment, especially at The Shoe with over 100,000 screaming, Buckeye fans.
Some of Notre Dame’s concerns were lessened when, on their first offensive play of the game, they punched OSU right in the mouth with a 54-yard run plus 15 yards for a roughing-the-quarterback penalty. Four plays later, ND scored a field goal. Not the start the Buckeyes had expected. The Irish offense dominated the OSU defense and finished the half holding the Buckeye offense to 149-yards. That was the fewest yards ever for OSU Coach Day’s team in a first half. As for the Buckeyes’ passing offense, it appeared to be a bit uncoordinated. Receivers ran incorrect routes, had timing issues with C.J. Stroud and missed passes. This was not the same Buckeye offense as last year. Jaxson Smith-Njigba, the best receiver in college football last year, got hurt on the first play on the Buckeyes’ second possession. After the injury, he only played two more plays, gaining three yards and then returned to the bench for the remainder of the game.
Near the end of the first quarter, Stroud noticed that the Irish safeties, who normally play deep, decided to blitz and left Emeka Egbuka in a single coverage. Stroud took advantage of their mistake and threw Emeka a 31-yard touchdown pass for the go ahead score. By the end of the first half, however, ND bounced back with a 1-yard touchdown run to lead 10-7 ending the 1st half.
The second half was much different for both teams as the OSU defense looked confident and aggressive. OSU held ND scoreless in the second half and to only 72-yards. The Irish could not mount any sustained drives and had no running game to help balance the load for Tyler Bucher. ND only converted 3 of 13 third downs for the entire game.
The Ohio State offensive running game got better in the second half, but the passing was nothing like what the Columbus fans were familiar with. Strange because they have basically the same horses. Maybe it was first game jitters, particularly playing a #5 team.
Neither team played like a Top Ten team would be expected to play. Notre Dame is tough and has talent. Notre Dame’s defense initially played well but faltered as the game went on. The Irish should be able to get it together and be much better as the season progresses, provided they straighten out the defensive problems and develop a running game.
As for the Buckeyes, last year we saw what Stroud can do and there is no question there will be considerable improvement from Saturday’s struggles, even if they must go to backup receivers. The Buckeyes 21 points were their fewest in a game since Day became head coach. While the passing offense was still not up to the standard Stroud set last year, he did connect with six different receivers besides Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Last year, Smith-Njigba was the best sophomore receiver in Buckeye history, breaking multiple records. If Jaxson is seriously injured, it would be very debilitating for his career and the OSU offense. The other key receiver, Julian Fleming, was injured and did not play Saturday. Xavier Johnson, who usually plays on special teams, got a chance to be a Smith-Njigba’s replacement as a Buckeye receiver and caught his first two passes, ever, in this game. With 17 seconds left in the third quarter, he caught a 24-yard pass from Stroud for the winning touchdown. Johnson is someone to watch this season.
Also, the Buckeye’s running game may be getting significantly tougher. Last year, running back TreVeyon Henderson scored 15 touchdowns, which broke the record for a freshman running back, and led the nation in yards per carry. He was the Buckeyes’ leading rusher Saturday with 91-yards.
Also making his mark was the other running back, Miyan Williams. Williams said in the spring the coaches told him they wanted him to be the power back this year. Saturday, he scored the Buckeyes’ 3rd touchdown, dragging several defenders into the end zone with him. Williams had 84-yards for the game, 65 of which came after contact. It would appear that Williams is going to be the power back OSU wants. Maybe we will see a bit of “Tressel Ball” or as the old timers call it “three yards and a cloud of dust”. But only enough to keep their opponents’ defense honest.
If you grade the new Jim Knowles defense, particularly based on the last half of the game, you will clearly see some improvements, especially considering they were playing a big tough, Top Ten team. The biggest difference was the pressure they put on the quarterback. Knowles’ defense had all types of defensive looks to confuse the young Irish quarterback Buchner, and maybe even some of ND’s coaches.
Let’s hope these teams get better quickly and, who knows, maybe they will get to play each other again in the playoffs.


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