It wasn’t supposed to be this close.
Pegged as 17½-point favorites heading into Saturday night, No. 2 Ohio State was bogged down by No. 5 Notre Dame’s defense and didn’t pull away until late in the fourth quarter, eventually landing on a 21-10 win that can interpreted in any number of ways.
For one, the Buckeyes’ offense unwillingness to commit to the running game was surprising, especially with the tandem of Miyan Williams (91 yards) and potential All-America pick TreVeyon Henderson (84 yards) combining to average 6.0 yards per carry. Third-year quarterback C.J. Stroud completed 70.5% of his attempts for 223 yards and two touchdowns but averaged a career-low 6.6 yards per attempt.
Expected to again rank among the best in the Bowl Subdivision, this offense was often bogged down by an Irish approach under coach Marcus Freeman that largely played things safe rather than take major gambles — though a failed blitz on third down did help Stroud find Xavier Johnson for the go-ahead score late in the third quarter.
Eventually, though, the better team emerged: OSU put the game away with a 14-play, 95-yards drive that featured 10 running plays and took more than seven minutes off the clock, putting the Buckeyes ahead by 11 points with 4:51 left.
From there, the OSU defense took over. Here are three observations from a win that will play a major role in determining the final makeup of this year’s College Football Playoff.
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The Buckeyes’ new defense looks the part
Last year’s defensive meltdown led Ohio State to hire former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who piloted a unit that finished first in the Big 12 and fourth nationally last season in yards allowed per game.
The new-look Buckeyes’ defense is off to a great start. Notre Dame did average 9.8 yards per throw, thanks to three completions of 30 or more yards. But the Irish were held to just 76 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per play overall as OSU controlled the line of scrimmage and won consistently on third down — the Irish would convert just three of those 13 attempts.
Should the Buckeyes’ offense get back into last year’s rhythm and this defense carry over Saturday night’s performance into Big Ten play, OSU will rediscovered the sort of balance that’s been missing since the 2019 season.
Ryan Day avoids a major upset
It’s OSU that avoided the upset but Day who escaped the bright spotlight that would’ve come from a second regular-season loss in a row.
You may remember the last one: Michigan 42, Buckeyes 27. Suffering a second loss in a row to a high-profile opponent would’ve blown back on Day, who has been remarkably effective since taking over in 2019 — two playoff berths, one trip to the championship game and a Rose Bowl win, for starters — without drawing anything close to the same acclaim as Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart and the coaches in charge at other FBS powerhouse programs.
Freeman came into Saturday under somewhat similar pressure, having just replaced the winningest coach in program history and inheriting the annual expectations that come with running the show at Notre Dame. But Day came into the 2022 season shouldering some huge expectations: national championship or bust. Surviving the Irish keeps that goal in reach.
The Irish are close (but also discouragingly far)
There’s a lot to like about Notre Dame’s overall energy, the play of this defense and the overall performance by new starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, who finished with just under 200 yards of offense. Major underdogs coming into the night, the Irish showed enough to suggest they could easily pull down a spot in the New Year’s Six.
But getting to the playoff? That’s a tall order after losing to the Big Ten frontrunners in Week 1. Close but not quite: Notre Dame continues to rank among the top programs in the country but still seems a few steps behind the best of the best.