COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — C.J. Stroud threw two touchdown passes and Ohio State’s revamped defense gave its vaunted offense time to find its groove as the second-ranked Buckeyes beat No. 5 Notre Dame 21-10 on Saturday night.
The top-five opening matchup was a homecoming for first-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman, the former Buckeyes linebacker who has made a meteoric rise to lead the Fighting Irish at 36 years old.
Freeman is now 0-2 as a head coach after losing a bowl game just weeks after being named Brian Kelly’s successor.
In the first regular-season meeting of the storied programs since 1996, the Irish hung with the high-scoring Buckeyes for most of three quarters, frustrating Heisman Trophy finalist Stroud and putting together a couple of first-half scoring drives.
But Ohio State’s defense, too generous against the run last season, put the clamps on the Irish and new starting quarterback Tyler Buchner in the second half.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day turned over his defensive staff in the offseason, bringing in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to be coordinator.
How quickly the Buckeyes would pick up a scheme that is considered more complicated and multiple than the one they have been running was an open question.
Looked good in game one. The Irish managed just 253 yards and punted on their last six possessions. Tommy Eichenberg had two of Ohio State’s three sacks.
And the Irish D could only hold up for so long.
On a third-and-long, Notre Dame brought multiple blitzers and Ohio State gave Stroud plenty of time to find Xavier Johnson open down the vacated deep middle for a 24-yard score. That put the Buckeyes up 14-10 with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
On its next drive, Ohio State asserted itself. The Buckeyes went 95 yards on 14 plays, killing seven minutes off the clock and making it 21-10 on a 1-yard surge by Miyan Williams.
Williams ran for 84 yards on 14 carries and TreVeyon Henderson had 91 on 15 attempts.
Ohio State led the nation in scoring and yards per play last season, but for much of the night it was a slog for Stroud and the offense.
Playing mostly without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who took a hard hit on the first series, Stroud threw for 223 yards.
He and Emeka Egbuka connected for a 31-yard catch and run to make it 7-3 in the first quarter. But that was it for the Buckeyes in the first half.
Buchner and the Irish responded with a long touchdown drive capped by Audric Etime’s 1-yard touchdown leap in the second quarter to put the Irish up 10-7.
That’s how it went to the half. Things could not have gone much better for Freeman to that point in his return to Ohio Stadium, but it turned out that was as good as it would get.
Notre Dame: Buchner completed his first eight passes and then went 2 for 10 the rest of the way. The Irish got creative and made some big catches in the first half to move the ball, but they ran out of answers in the second half.
Ohio State: Smith-Njigba, last seen setting Rose Bowl record, finished with 2 catches for 3 yards. The Buckeyes boast a deep receiver room, filled with blue-chippers but it was Johnson, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, who caught the go-ahead touchdown.
Ohio State honored its 2002 national championship during a quick on-the-field ceremony in the first half with former coach Jim Tressel and dozens of former players, including Maurice Clarett.
Tressel reluctantly was hoisted on to the shoulders of two former players and the crowd roared.
The first game in the 100th season of Ohio Stadium also attracted LeBron James and his son, Bronny, to the Ohio State sideline. With the NFL season a week away, former Buckeyes Justin Fields and Chase Young were in attendance.
Notre Dame: The first home game for Freeman is next week against Marshall.
Ohio State: Toledo visits the Buckeyes.