Playing No. 5 Notre Dame in the season opener was bound to expose some problems for the Buckeyes. I was concerned about the defense: the line, the linebackers, the secondary. I guess that’s everybody. And I was wondering about the effectiveness of the OSU running game against a good defense. But never did I think that I’d devote this column to issues with the Ohio State passing game, and – let’s be honest – with quarterback C.J. Stroud.
The passing game, however, didn’t measure up, and it took a stout defense and a bruising running attack to pull out the big win.
After the game, Stroud obliquely addressed his subpar performance. He didn’t use the word “nervous,” but he talked about how strange it felt to be playing for real, in front of a huge crowd, for high stakes. Yeah, he was nervous. Not surprising really, given the circumstances. What was surprising was that it took so long to shake off the nerves, to settle down, and find what broadcasters always refer to as his “rhythm.” But it did take a while, so let’s look at why.
The Notre Dame defense
Stroud was up against one of the best defenses that he’ll face this year, and perhaps one of the best defenses in the country — and they played like it. They came in with a good scheme, were disciplined, and executed well. They were beaten down by OSU’s aggressive and physical O-line at the end, but for nearly three quarters, the ND defense was the real deal.
The Irish, for much of the game, kept their two safeties (one of whom, Brandon Joseph, is a preseason All-American) deep to prevent the long pass plays that make the Buckeye attack so powerful. They combined this formation with a formidable pass rush on Stroud. The result of this combination was that Stroud couldn’t throw the deep ball. He didn’t have time, and the receivers couldn’t get behind the Irish secondary.
Although the Irish were credited with only one sack, the pass rush frequently flushed Stroud from the pocket, forcing him to roll out in order to keep the play alive, and to throw on the run. He’s good at it. But Stroud, like most QBs, is much better throwing from a protected pocket.
Not being able to hit the big plays, Stroud was frustrated as he turned his attention to shorter routes. Once his favorite receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, went down in the first quarter, Stroud’s frustration (and nerves) worsened. He underthrew a number of passes. Some of them were incomplete, but, even on completions, he was short, or late. Throwing behind a receiver rather than hitting him in stride lessened the likelihood of a good catch and run, long a trademark of the OSU passing game.
Emeka Egbuka managed to snag a sideline pass and break free of his defender. He streaked down the sideline for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown, a play that covered 31 yards — the longest play of the night.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many short passes from the Buckeyes, especially ones over the middle, that went for four or five yards. In Stroud’s great 2021 season, he averaged 10.1 yards every time he threw the ball, complete or incomplete. Against the Irish, his average yards per attempt was 6.6.
In 2021, JSN averaged 16.9 yards per catch; against ND, he had three yards on two catches. Marvin Harrison Jr., in limited play in 2021, averaged 12.6 yards per catch; his performance on Saturday was close – an 11.2-yard average for his five receptions. Egbuka averaged 21.2 yards per catch in 2021 (only nine receptions) and 10 yards per catch (also nine receptions) against Notre Dame. Xavier Johnson averaged 17 yards on his two catches, Cade Stover 4.7, and Jayden Ballard seven. No big plays.
Stroud didn’t really settle down until the running game started clicking in the second half. That success, combined with the great job that the Buckeye defense was doing, visibly removed some of the pressure from Stroud. He didn’t have to win the game himself.
It’s a good thing that the Buckeye receiver room is so deep. We anticipated JSN, Harrison Jr., and Julian Fleming to be the starting wideouts. Fleming sat out of the game with an injured shoulder, and Smith-Njigba was injured on his first catch. Harrison Jr. and Egbuka both played pretty well, without blowing me away. And we saw Ballard and Johnson, surprisingly, playing meaningful downs. Stover caught three short passes but was (in my opinion) under-utilized.
Miyan Williams made a really nice catch for a 12-yard first down, diving toward the sideline as he made the grab. It was his only reception. And TreVeyon Henderson didn’t catch a pass. So, neither of these weapons was used to catch a wheel route, a screen, even a dump out in the flat. They didn’t have the chance to get the ball in some open space.
Stroud and the OSU offense weren’t helped any by the play calling. The Buckeyes had to expect Notre Dame to try to take away the long pass. If they didn’t, the game would be over quickly. But it was hard for me to tell what solution Ryan Day had in mind to counter that tactic. Running plays, in order to bring the safeties up in support, are the obvious call, but we didn’t see much running in the first half.
Screens and draws are often employed to slow down a vicious pass rush. I know that Ohio State doesn’t run many draws and that screens are often executed with wide receivers, but I would have liked to see running backs on screen passes. Since Stroud seemed willing to run a couple of sneaks for first downs, how about a quarterback draw?
Notre Dame’s defense is no doubt faster than most teams’ that OSU will face this year. Nonetheless, the Buckeyes are loaded with elite talent. It’s necessary to get the ball to big-time playmakers — guys like Henderson and Egbuka — in open space. The Bucks like to run the slot receiver (or tight end) in underneath the linebackers and hope for a good run after the catch. With the safeties back, it was hard for OSU to get the linebackers to drop deep into coverage to allow room for these plays.
What about passes to the backs or a delay pattern for the tight end? When your wideouts are depleted, and the defense has taken away deep posts, seam patterns, and long outs, you need to have some other arrows in your quiver.
First of all, Stroud is going to be just fine. He has a couple of fairly easy (I would hope) games to regain his stride. He’s the best QB in the country, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to show his stuff.
I don’t know how long Smith-Njigba and Fleming will be out. Not long, I hope; the injuries don’t sound all that serious. But Stroud will need to familiarize himself with other receivers. He already has a good rapport with Harrison Jr., Egbuka, Ballard, and Johnson will get more practice reps this week. And, against an opponent like Arkansas State, we may see one or more of the true freshmen receivers.
The running attack looked very good in the second half of the Notre Dame game. It needs to be used, with perhaps some more plays outside to pressure linebackers and corners and set up some passes. Passing more to the backs and to the tight ends would also be a good idea until JSN, especially, returns.
Just as the passing attack is probably the most unexpected problem for the Buckeyes to face, it’s probably also the easiest to fix. All of the parts, really good parts, are already in place. It was a big win, and the only damage from the unexpectedly modest passing attack is a drop behind Georgia in the AP Poll. I can’t see that it makes any difference at this point whether a team is ranked No. 2 or No. 3. There is quite a bit of football left to be played.