It wasn’t always pretty, and at times it looked like the Buckeyes might have another early season home disappointment in prime time. But C.J. Stroud found his groove, the Ohio State defense held up down the stretch, and the Buckeyes got the big win they needed to kickstart the 2022 season on Saturday night.
It took Ohio State a few quarters to settle in tonight, hopefully the first 10 Observations column of the season starts off a little faster.
1. What a build up to this game. What a setting. The Buckeyes have played in so many of these huge early season non-conference games, but I don’t think any of them in recent history had this type of vibe around it. The top five ranking for each team was great, but there is a real distaste between these two programs, more than you’d ever expect between two teams that have only played each other a handful of times in 130 years. The Marcus Freeman/Al Washington angle made it all the more interesting. Throw in one of the best recruiting visitor lists you’ll ever see and the best “VIP list” I can remember attending an Ohio State game and it could be a long time before we see something like this again. But hey, maybe Nick Saban will still be roaming the sidelines in 2027….
2. Reason No. 27832324 why college football is the best sport this planet has to offer. Xavier Johnson. In the changing landscape of NIL deals and the transfer portal (and, for the record, I am and always have been pro-player in both the compensation and freedom of movement debates), and the corporatization of college campuses and the game day experience, we get a former walk-on making the biggest play of the game. One who has changed positions multiple times, foregone the opportunity to hit the portal to find a more suitable depth chart, and has quite simply done everything his coaches have asked him to do without hesitation. Rudy could have only dreamed to have made this type of impact.
3. This was not C.J. Stroud’s best game, but it was an important piece of his development. Stroud was not always sharp and is still a bit too timid to take off when things break down, but he stood in and made some beautiful throws when it mattered most. The most notable throw being the touchdown to the aforementioned Johnson. Stroud knew he was going to take a shot as the pocket was starting to collapse around him but was patient enough to give Johnson a chance to separate and then delivered a perfect throw. It wasn’t perfect offensively by any means, but this was a huge learning moment for Stroud who made big throws at key times with his top target out of the game. This will pay dividends in November and beyond.
4. Why do you never take a recruiting cycle off at a certain position? Because sometimes you lose two studs to the NFL and then your returning first round pick gets injured early and you’re left with a bunch of second year players with only a morsel of big game experience. And when that happens, those guys better be awfully talented to make up for the lack of experience. Brian Hartline’s recruiting efforts once again showed their value tonight with Emeka Egbuka stepping up huge in the absence of Julian Fleming and then Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
5. Big Mike Hall is going to be a problem. From the jump, he was one of the most noticeable Buckeyes on the field tonight. He has the quickness to play the three-technique and even in some situations to play outside as a five-tech, but he does it in the body of a nose guard. The freakish athleticism I saw out of him in high school has only been enhanced with a couple of years now under Larry Johnson’s tutelage. Hall has the look of an All-Big Ten defensive lineman, and not down the road a few years.
6. Building off of the above, if the Buckeyes want to have a dominant defense this season, it is going to have to be spearheaded by the second-year defensive linemen. Zach Harrison is a deserving starter and a good player and the Buckeyes will get plenty of good reps out of Taron Vincent this season, but the star power lies in the second-year group of Hall, J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, and Tyleik Williams. Sure, there is real value in rotating up front, but two of these four will need to take their opportunities and run with them and become stars this season if the Buckeyes are to get where they want to go.
7. Ohio State fans were probably suffering from PTSD after that opening defensive series which included another chunk play to setup a Notre Dame field goal. But the defense is so clearly improved already. The defense swarmed to the football, showed a variety of different looks up front, and the linebackers (particularly Tommy Eichenberg who played a fantastic game) were filling gaps. This is only game one, but conventional wisdom would be that this defense will improve over the course of the season as it gains more comfortability with Jim Knowles’ system
8. It’s easy to sit here and say “never a doubt” now that the hay is in the barn, but a lot of things went the wrong way for Ohio State and yet the Buckeyes were still only down three at halftime. Notre Dame played the exact game it wanted to play in the first two and a half quarters, got a couple of breaks with the JSN injury and the tip drill catch to setup the touchdown. It stood to reason that things would shift at least a little bit in Ohio State’s direction in the second half, and that’s exactly what happened.
9. For all of the warts this offense had in the first 40 minutes of this game, you have to love the way the Buckeyes finished this game. Yes, Ryan Day is a young, bright, and creative offensive mind and this offense has plenty of Ferraris in its garage. But championship teams have to be able to line up and move the opponent against its will and the Buckeyes did that over the final 20 minutes of this game. This offense can still be pretty, but it has to have to some grit to it as well. Grit that it lacked a season ago. Tonight was an encouraging step.
10. Fingers crossed on the injury updates this week. Quite a few guys were banged up tonight. They survived tonight without Smith-Njigba but they need his on-field leadership almost as much as they need his abilities as a receiver. Gotta get him back and healthy.