This Week in Ohio State Football: Final thoughts on the win at Notre Dame

Rewatching a football game is always valuable given all that is going on in real time, and this week was no different.

Once I can take a look without worrying about finishing a story — which sometimes changes on the fly! — and whatever longterm narratives might come out of it, just concentrating on what happened on each play is easier.

After doing that, I concluded the Ohio State defense made some mistakes but overall did its job. Same with Kyle McCord, who rose to the occasion when the Buckeyes needed him most and made some great reads and throws on the final drive. Ohio State’s skill players were excellent, as expected, and they turned out to be the difference in the game — also as expected.

Here are seven thoughts on Ohio State’s fourth win of the season as the Buckeyes enjoy a week off:

1. In assessing anything from this game, it is important to keep in mind Notre Dame is good.

The Fighting Irish are a little short on absolutely elite players, but they have many good players and few, if any, glaring weaknesses, so they were going to make Ohio State earn it like 80% or more of the Buckeyes’ schedule is not able to do.

A former coworker of mine likes to say, “Life is all about managing expectations.” That is very true. We can apply it to Ohio State football just about any week, but never more than this one.

Many people, myself included, have been conditioned to expect the Buckeyes not only to win but to dominate pretty much every week. That expectation is so ingrained it can be hard to turn it off even when they are in what we’re apparently calling “matchup games” now.

Of course, no one should have expected Ohio State to dominate Notre Dame — the Irish were a trendy pick it seemed even though oddsmakers favored OSU — but there is still a rush to judgement whenever anything goes wrong. That is important to keep in mind when evaluating the defense. Watching the Fighting Irish go on a pair of long touchdown drives in the second half was jarring, but again Notre Dame has a good offense so they are going to have some success. At the end of the day, Ohio State allowed 351 yards and 14 points. The pace of the game depressed those numbers a bit, but they are what they are.

2. I compared the matchup to Ali-Frazier in my final preview story, and it really did play out that way.

If you have to isolate one reason and only one reason Ohio State won, it was the Buckeyes advantage on the perimeter.

The teams traded blows inside all night. Both landed big shots, but Notre Dame would have been leading on most scorecards going into the last round. And yet Fighting Irish just couldn’t contain Ohio State’s receivers when absolutely necessary.

McCord stepped up and made some tough, accurate, powerful throws to Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr., two guys just too good to stop. Harrison made a clutch catch on a bum ankle while Egbuka was sly about getting open and taking advantage of space. Julian Fleming, the forgotten five-star, also had a crucial fourth down conversion on the final drive.

3. TreVeyon Henderson’s pure speed also was a major difference.

Notre Dame has a stable of good running backs, but Henderson might be the fastest in the country.

When he bounced it out toward the sideline Saturday night I thought, “I bet they catch him, but if anyone has the speed to turn the corner it’s this guy.” They didn’t catch him. He did turn the corner, and he scored 50 percent of Ohio State’s touchdowns and picked up almost half of their rushing yards on that one play.

So what was going on on the other 26 runs? Well, Ohio State’s success rate on runs was 42, which isn’t terrible, and in watching it again there were multiple times they started with a run that got about four yards even if it felt like it got less.

4. The Ohio State offensive line still didn’t look good upon a second viewing.

Too many times the Buckeyes weren’t finishing blocks, turning OK plays into bad plays and preventing good plays from being better.

Everyone took a turn getting in on it, so this is just a group that needs to get better overall.

The good news is that is something that can and does happen over time, but this remains a major concern even after the fog of war lifted.

5. This was the equivalent of a final round knockout by a fighter who had no other way to win.

Imagine if the first Ali-Frazier fight ended with Ali getting up and knocking out Smokin’ Joe in the last round instead of the fight going to a decision (that favored Frazier).

Ohio State had the flash and dash, but Notre Dame stayed inside the Buckeyes’ reach and wore them down as the night went on. The Irish just couldn’t avoid that last haymaker.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden said this week he still feels good about mixing up coverages late in the game despite Egbuka getting loose underneath a zone to set up the winning touchdown. His reasoning was sound, but McCord and Egbuka one-upped him.

6. The Irish ran the ball well, which is to be expected because they have all the tools to run the ball and a commitment to doing it, but more noteworthy was how many times Sam Hartman found receivers with a lot of room within Ohio State’s zone defense.

As I wrote in this space last week, this was a good test for the new Jim Knowles, who said he has learned he might not need to be as hyper-aggressive as a play-caller at Ohio State as other places.

Pick your poison, right? Some of the success was a tip of the cap to a handful of talented running backs who were able to break tackles and get more yards than were there at times, and the zone defense was surprisingly leaky, too.

So 11 explosive plays is still a lot, but there were none of those home runs that were the story of last season for the Ohio State defense. Notre Dame’s longest play was a 28-yard pass as opposed to the 70-plus missiles Michigan and Georgia unleashed.

Knowles was known for coming up with varied game plans for each opponent at his previous stops, so it will be interesting to see what comes next after this. One could also say this is yet another step in the learning process for him and his players as far as what works best. Perhaps it will be another brick in the all to building a strong, reliable defense, but there is obviously plenty of development still to be done if the Buckeyes are going to achieve their goals this season.

No matter what, Ohio State can’t live with getting only two tackles for loss no matter what style they are going to play.

7. Assigning narratives to this one is tricky for a few reasons.

Ohio State’s incredible final drive not only changed the outcome of the game but flipped the script in many ways. Then so did Ryan Day’s postgame outburst defending his team’s toughness.

I have to admit I was first skeptical of some of the things Day said given that Notre Dame won the line of scrimmage this time around.

Toughness, of course, is hard to define.

It was the word of the year last year, and that all went up in smoke when they lost to Michigan again. After that, I decided I wasn’t going to bother writing about said topic again until I saw something different. Did I see something different on Saturday night? I don’t know.

I know pulling off that comeback took mental fortitude, but it also felt like the offense fell short multiple times during the game, and the defense allowed not one but two long drives in the second half, so plenty is still to be determined on this topic with two thirds of the regular season yet to be played.

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