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You’re Nuts: What was the biggest pleasant surprise from Ohio State in Week 1?

We learned a lot in the Buckeyes’ 21-10 win over Notre Dame.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: What was the biggest pleasant surprise from Ohio State in Week 1?

Josh’s Take

While the top-5 matchup between Notre Dame and Ohio State certainly produced a wide range of emotions and plenty of nervous moments (at least for yours truly), I can’t say the end result was altogether surprising. Sure, both Gene and I predicted a higher scoring game on Saturday night, but we were aligned on approximately a 10-point margin of victory for the Buckeyes.

Neither of us believed that OSU was going to blow Marcus Freeman and the Fighting Irish out of the water, because Week 1 tends to be an odd, fluky, often sloppy week of football, regardless of talent or ranking. Add in the fact that this was a prestige matchup, with history, emotions, etc., and I think that’s where you end up with a recipe for potential disaster — if you belong to Buckeye Nation.

But, alas, the good guys prevailed, and they took down a talented team in Notre Dame. I believe the Irish will win a bunch of games, especially once they get the offense figured out. Tyler Buchner showed flashes of high-end potential, but also flashes of inexperience and football immaturity. The dual threat quarterback was not able to rely on his legs in the second half, and missed the mark on a number of passing attempts. Some of that can be attributed to his lack of previous playing time, but I am going to give most of the credit to my pleasant Week 1 surprise: the coaching of Jim Knowles, along with the brilliant performance of his players on the Ohio State defense.

Throughout the offseason, I was cautiously optimistic that we would see a much-improved unit under Knowles. I loved what I saw from his defense(s) at Oklahoma State, and I believed that with more/better talent, he could put together something special in Columbus. The additions of Perry Eliano and Tim Walton were icing on the cake, in my opinion, and the news from fall camp further fed my optimism and excitement. But until you see proof of concept, you are never really sure. I guess there was a tiny part of me that thought we could see more of the same (2020 and 2021 performance). And a 54-yard completion on ND’s first play from scrimmage did not help matters.

However, you could see from the get-go that guys on the field were at least playing with a purpose, and with a sense of direction. See ball, get ball. Play fast. Play aggressive. Play mean... but do those things while maintaining composure and executing assignments. And executing assignments was a noticeable “theme” for me. Because the players on the field were pretty much the same.

The defensive line and linebacker groups looked familiar. Denzel Burke, Cam Brown, and Ronnie Hickman filled out most of the secondary. With the exception of Josh Proctor (who we are obviously familiar with) and Tanner McCalister, it was not as if the Buckeyes were running out seven or eight new faces. I found myself thinking: “Alright, it’s the same bunch of guys. Now what?” But right away, it was evident that the same players had a different mentality, and they were positioned to succeed. It was up to them to execute what they had been thoroughly and expertly taught.

Knowles has referred to himself as a teacher, and you could tell he took this defense to class all spring and summer. Missed assignments? Very few, if any. Players out of position? Rarely, if ever. Dumb penalties and/or mental mistakes? Nope. For the most part, guys knew where to be, and when to be there. And how refreshing was that? Because the issues in 2020 and 2021 could not be chalked up to lack of talent. It was gameplan, education, and execution. Nothing against former coaches, but those things were lacking post-Jeff Hafley. Knowles and his crew seem to have righted the ship (for now), and more importantly, they have established a mindset and an expectation.

I could discuss specific players (Mike Hall, Tommy Eichenberg, Lathan Ransom), but at the end of the day, 11 players on the same field at any given time made a collective difference. Poor gap-filling here, a missed tackle there, those things are going to happen during the course of any game. But consistently throughout this one, players 1-11 all executed at a higher than what we saw last year. Their new coaches put them in a position to succeed, and as a result, the Buckeyes produced their best defensive performance in years. While I was cautiously optimistic, I did not expect such dominance.

So kudos to Knowles, Eliano, Walton, and the GOAT Larry Johnson. Players from 2021 pitching a second-half shutout in 2022 was a much-needed pleasant surprise.

Gene’s Take

Like Josh, the Ohio State defense looking as good as it did was a huge pleasant surprise. Holding Notre Dame to 10 points while allowing nothing in the second half — and 72 total yards in the second half, at that — was something I did not think the Buckeyes would be capable of out of the gate. As my counterpart alluded to, it is largely the same group of players out there from last year’s defense which was just SO bad, I figured even for a defensive wiz like Jim Knowles, turning it around that fast would be darn near impossible. But hats off to Knowles. While Ohio State may not hold every opponent this season to 10 points or less, that was the best performance we’ve seen from them on that side of the ball in years.

However, it would be a very boring edition of You’re Nuts if we both just gushed about Ohio State’s defense the whole time, so I will avert my eyes elsewhere. For me, one of the biggest pleasant surprises from the Buckeyes’ Week 1 matchup was the play of the offensive line. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. But, what they showed was a toughness and the ability to push guys around when things mattered most, and THAT is something that has been lacking from that group for some time now.

When Ohio State is at its best offensively, they are going to be throwing the ball around the yard. We know Ryan Day is a quarterback guy, and as such the Buckeyes are going to look to throw the ball with C.J. Stroud and his crop of five-star receivers. Even still, we heard all offseason how much of an emphasis this year’s team would have on running the football. Day and his staff understand how important it is to be able to pick up the tough yards on the ground. All too often last season, OSU would get stuffed trying to pick up two or three yards on the ground on 3rd-and-short. During the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Bucks’ offensive line announced their presence with authority.

Ohio State ran 20 plays in the fourth quarter, and 16 of them were runs gaining a total of 85 yards and scoring the touchdown needed to ice the game. With just under 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Buckeyes put together a 14-play, 95-yard scoring drive that ate up over seven minutes of clock. Miyan Williams was a man possessed on that impressive possession, but the offensive line was the real key in keeping things moving. The front was pushing Notre Dame’s defense around and opening up massive holes for its running backs to waltz on through, and that was an area this offense lacked severely in 2021.

The line had its faults for sure. I though the pass protection could have been better despite allowing only the one sack, and obvious a handful of pre-snap penalties can be cleaned up. But as things generally tend to go with a new group of offensive linemen, it takes some time to guys to get a feel for one another and for the unit to fully gel. I think these guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with as the season goes on and they get more and more comfortable as a group. I expected Ohio State to have a solid offensive line this season, but their toughness and ability to bully a really good defense in the fourth quarter was a big pleasant surprise.