Ohio State football takes over late with help from Xavier Johnson, tops Notre Dame 21-10

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State's offense awakened from an unexpected slumber just in time.

Right when it looked like Notre Dame might hand the Buckeyes another marquee non-conference loss at Ohio Stadium, Ohio State came alive for a 21-10 season-opening win over the No. 5 Fighting Irish.

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Down 10-7, former walk-on Xavier Johnson caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Stroud to give the No. 2 Buckeyes the lead late in the third quarter.

Ohio State then iced it in front of 106,594 at the Horseshoe with a 95-yard touchdown drive that chewed up more than 7 minutes. Miyan Williams ground out 49 of those yards, including the final 2.

It may not have been what Ohio State expected, but the Buckeyes were happy to escape.

"I couldn’t be any prouder of our team and the way our team played," said coach Ryan Day. "Especially in the fourth quarter. People questioned our toughness in the offseason … But to be able to get the run game going in the fourth quarter says a lot about our team."OSU played most of the game without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who left after a hard sideline hit on the Buckeyes' second possession, sought treatment from the team's athletic trainers, and played only a few plays after that. He had only two catches for 3 yards.

Without Smith-Njigba, the passing offense looked out of sorts, and the Buckeyes ran the ball only 10 times in the first half for 55 yards.

Ohio State went six straight possessions without scoring after Emeka Egbuka caught a 31-yard touchdown pass on the Buckeyes' second possession.

"Yeah, it was a struggle early on," Day said. "They’re a good defense. They have a lot of seniors. When we lost Jaxon, we kind of got out of rhythm."

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Fortunately, Ohio State's revamped defense under new coordinator Jim Knowles did its job. The Buckeyes held Notre Dame scoreless for nearly the final 42 minutes.

"The story of the night is the defense," said Day.

It enabled Ohio State to escape a loss against a top non-league team in the Horseshoe. Visiting Oregon last year and Oklahoma in 2017 stunned the Buckeyes. Notre Dame looked like it might do the same when it led 10-7 at halftime.

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The Fighting Irish, with former Buckeye Marcus Freeman making his debut as coach, took the opening kick and gained 54 yards on their first snap when Tyler Buchner threw to Lorenzo Styles, who shed a tackle by Josh Proctor on the play. Another 15 was tacked on for a roughing penalty on J.T. Tuimoloau.

The Buckeyes' defense then stuffed three Irish runs to force Notre Dame to settle for a 33-yard field goal.

Ohio State took the lead on its second possession with a 54-yard drive. After a pass interference call moved the ball into Irish territory, Stroud threw a sideline pass to Emeka Egbuka just outside the reach of a Notre Dame defender. Egbuka spun away from a tackle and bulled into the end zone.

But those were the only points the Buckeyes scored in the first 30 minutes.

At the half, Stroud was 11 for 17 for only 99 yards and Ohio State had run for only 50 yards in 11 carries.

Meanwhile, Buchner completed his first eight passes in his first college start. Four of those completions came during an 87-yard, second-quarter drive that gave the Irish the lead again. Matt Salerno made a juggling catch while covered by Denzel Burke for a 31-yard gain, and star tight end Michael Mayer caught a 22-yard on the next play. Notre Dame scored on a 1-yard dive by Audric Estime to take a 10-7 advantage.

Ohio State came up empty on its next two possessions. The Buckeyes drove to the Irish 22 on the second, but Stroud threw behind Egbuka on a third-and-7 pass and Noah Ruggles hooked a 39-yard field goal wide left with 36 seconds left before intermission.

Stroud finished 24 of 34 for 223 yards. Williams ended up with 84 yards in 14 carries. TreVeyon Henderson had 91 yards in 15 carries.

Ohio State last lost a season-opener in 1999 against Miami. The Buckeyes' last season-opening loss at the Horseshoe came in 1978 against Penn State, which was not then a Big Ten member.

"We have to be able to win that way. We do," said Day. "There are going to be games in the Big Ten like that."

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