COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Coach Ryan Day had no apologies for No. 2 Ohio State’s low-scoring, “clunky” win over No. 5 Notre Dame.
Saturday night’s underwhelming 21-10 victory was less about the Buckeyes showing off their sleek, high-scoring offense and more about grinding it out in the second half just to survive a difficult season opener.
With No. 1 receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the bench early with an injury, heavily favored Ohio State banged away with their running backs, who averaged nearly five yards per carry. The defense, so maligned last season, made stop after stop in the second half.
The performance wasn’t flashy — much of it was quite the opposite — but Day couldn’t have been prouder.
“That’s was something we spent a lot of time in the off-season saying — we have to be able to win ugly on offense,” Day said.
“If we can continue to win games like that, then that’s how we’ll win games. If you can win in different ways, I think it says a lot about your team as well. And I think this game is going to pay dividends down the road.”
Day pointed to the performance of quarterback C.J. Stroud, a Heisman Trophy favorite who many expected would pick up right where he left off with last year’s astronomical passing numbers.
Stroud was often fleeing the Irish pass rush Saturday but managed a 31-yard touchdown pass to Emeka Egbuka for the Buckeyes’ only first half score. Notre Dame led 10-7 at the half.
But the Ohio State defense, engineered by new coordinator Jim Knowles, forced punts on Notre Dame’s last two possessions in the first half and all four in the second.
“We had a play here or there that we gave up, but what I’m most pleased with is the fact that they never flinched,” Knowles said. “They’ve bought into everything that I’ve been asking them to do.”
Meanwhile, TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams chewed up ground, Stroud made clutch throws to move the chains and, with a blitz descending, threw a 24-yard TD strike to former walk-on Xavier Johnson in the third quarter.
“(Stroud) was the happiest guy out there,” Day said. “And maybe it wasn’t the perfect night, and everyone wants to talk about the Heisman Trophy and all that (but) he just wants to go 1-0, and he did. He made some big-time throws.”
Stroud was 24 for 34 for 223 yards. Modest numbers considering he averaged nearly 370 a game last season.
“The defense was ballin’,” Stroud said. “They won this game, but I do think in the passing game, when we really needed it, we were efficient. We were struggling early on just trying to get a connection, trying to build that rhythm. But towards the end we kept going, we started to start clicking more.”
Egbuka had nine catches for 90 yards.
“It’s not always pretty, but it’s only Week 1,” Egbuka said. “But we’re going to build from here, and we’re going to be something special.”
Ohio State will get its chance to tune up in the next two weeks against Arkansas State, a Sunbelt Conference team that finished 2-10 last year, and then Toledo.
There was no immediate word on Smith-Njigba, who limped off the field after a hard hit early in the game and came back for only a few plays after that. Day would only say that “we hope to get him back this week.”
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