The worst performance for the Ohio State offense this season was the season opener against Notre Dame when the Buckeyes had to figure out on the fly how to live without junior receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Smith-Njigba caught just two passes in a short stint during OSU’s 21-10 win over the Fighting Irish. A hamstring injury cost him the bulk of that game, and most of the season to this point. And he is now on the verge of returning to action for an Ohio State offense that has figured out how to play without him.
Head coach Ryan Day is non-committal about Smith-Njigba playing in this weekend’s game against Iowa, but he has at least admitted that Smith-Njigba exists and he has been practicing this week.
The expectation the last few weeks is that Ohio State has been looking at this week as a good spot for his return. Nothing to this point has slowed those expectations. Obviously, everybody at OSU wants him back, but the one thing that the Buckeyes can’t do is force the ball into Jaxon Smith-Njigba in some misguided attempt to make up for lost time.
“You can’t get into that, you just can’t,” Day said this week. “If you start worrying about that, you put yourself at risk of getting beat. And we can’t do that. So it’ll happen naturally. We’ve just gotta go out and play. And we can’t focus on or have expectations, or focus on the number of touches, the number of runs, the number of throws, the number of catches.”
The Buckeyes have a collection of talent at their disposal that most teams envy. One of the benefits of having their kind of talent is that whether they are running the ball or throwing it, they are going to be executing the plays with a high level of talent. As such, whatever they choose to do, they’ve got the pieces to make the plays work. And what they choose to do is whatever a defense allows at that particular moment.
“We have to take what the defense is giving us,” Day explained. “And if that means they’re playing two shell and we’ve got to run it or if they’re coming down with an extra guy in the box, we’ve got to take a one-on-one shot, then that’s what it requires us to do, we will. And if one guy is getting double teamed, he’s getting double team. The ball’s gotta go somewhere else. We’ve seen that before. So that’s one thing we have to make sure we guard against.”
The Buckeyes have managed to have the nation’s top-scoring offense despite not having Smith-Njigba on the field for more than a handful of plays. In his stead, sophomore receivers Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka have stepped up, as have junior receiver Julian Fleming and fourth-year junior tight end Cade Stover.
Ohio State is also planning on having a pair of healthy running backs this week in TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams.
Overall, it’s a wealth of choices for Day as a play-caller, but the game plan will always be king, and the king sets the path forward for the offense.
“I just think you have an option of different things now that maybe you didn’t have before,” Day said. “But really, almost every game plan, what we’re trying to do is identify the things that we think give us the best chance to move the football and score and win the game. So rarely do we say, ‘Okay, we’ve done this in the past. No matter what we’re seeing on defense, this is what we’re going to run.’ We don’t really look at it like that.
“”We’re ‘Okay, what do they do and how can we attack them?’ And then here are the tools that we have in our arsenal. But also what have we done in the past that we can draw upon?” Day said. “So it’s hard to put in something brand new that you haven’t worked over and over again, worked all the kinks out, execute at a high level. But things that you’ve done that fit in that game plan, certainly you take those out and put them into the game plan and figure out how to dress them up.”
However they dress up Jaxon Smith-Njigba, they’ll just be happy to have him back on the field in any get-up. It’s been five weeks since he’s seen any game action, and if he’s ready to go, then there’s no time like the present to unwrap him from his rehabilitory confines.
There are still possibly nine games ahead for the Buckeyes, and even though Day doesn’t see them forcing the action, that doesn’t mean Smith-Njigba won’t force the issue himself. Remember, over the course of the final nine games last year, he caught 79 passes for 1,323 yards.
Those 79 catches weren’t because CJ Stroud was forcing the ball to him. It was because Jaxon Smith-Njigba was a force of nature himself, and Stroud just went the way the wind was blowing.