COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The adage in coaching goes the best thing about being 1-0 is the chance to get to 2-0.
Ohio State took care of the first part last weekend with a 21-10 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame and will look to complete the second part when it plays Arkansas State at Saturday at Ohio Stadium at 12 p.m.
The third-ranked Buckeyes were more physical and less finesse than usual against the Fighting Irish, which ran a scheme that played two high safeties almost exclusively and kept Ohio State from going over the top with the passing game. That was just fine as the Buckeyes rushed for 172 yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry.
The Ohio State defense, a liability for much of the last two seasons, was a revelation, limiting Notre Dame to 253 total yards, and was nails in the second half, forcing the Irish to punt on all six possessions and scoring zero points.
That defense picked up the slack for an offense that was slow getting out of the gate.
“I’m really pleased with the way guys played on defense,” coach Ryan Day said. “We have to continue to build on that.”
Looking to improve
No coach is going to quibble about a victory, but Day knows and expects his players can improve against the Red Wolves.
Ohio State is 3-0 all-time against current Sun Belt Conference teams (beating Troy in 2008 and Marshall in 2010 and 2004) and is 13-0 against non-Power 5 foes since 2015, so the expectation is that Saturday should be a much easier contest than the opener.
But no one is taking Arkansas State for granted.
“Every single week you have to bring it. Otherwise, you don’t have a chance to be a champion,” Day said.
The Buckeyes are favored by 43.5 points, which means this could be a day when fans learn about players who are usually standing on the sideline. It could end up being more of a contest against themselves than against the Red Wolves, but Day believes there is some value in that.
“No matter who we play, we have to play the same way, period,” Day said. “Bring it every single week, no matter who you’re playing, whether it’s the No. 2 team in the country, the No. 1 team in the country, or somebody that’s not ranked. We’ve got to bring it 12 times in the regular season, regardless of who we’re playing. You have to really hammer that mindset before you head into the season, and we’ve been talking about it a lot.”
The Buckeyes hope to get quarterback CJ Stroud going after he finished 24-of-34 passing for 223 yards (6.6 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. Day believes Stroud is light years ahead of where he was at this point last season.
“I think if you watch him move, he’s moving different,” Day said. “His body looks different.”
Tall task For A-State
After being a perennial Sun Belt contender, Arkansas State has fallen off over the last two seasons, winning just six games.
Butch Jones took over last year and saw his team limp to a 2-10 mark and finish near the bottom nationally in most important defensive statistics (notably 124th in total defense). Arkansas State allowed at least 40 points six times last season but showed a few position signs in its opener, a 58-3 victory over FCS Grambling.
Those around Jonesboro, Arkansas, know that the Buckeyes aren’t Grambling. But Jones believes that his team can only worry about itself and not be psyched out by the challenge of facing a blue blood in its home stadium in what appears to be a colossal mismatch.
“The only thing that matters right now is our preparation,” Jones said. “And we talk about taking pride in your preparation, and that’s what teams do when you learn how to win on the road. It starts in your preparation every single day. You can’t be mesmerized by the uniforms, the stadium, the crowd noise, all that. You have to be able to have a mindset to manage your business and control the things that you can control.”
Arkansas State is led by sixth-year senior quarterback James Blackman, who began his career at Florida State. Blackman has mobility and has shown flashes of big time arm talent but completed less than 60% of his passes in 2021 as part of a rotation.
One familiar face to the Buckeyes will be Red Wolves running back Brian Snead, who played in two games at Ohio State in 2018 before being dismissed from school after it was found he was found in violation of two student code of conduct charges for sexual misconduct.
Snead went to a junior college, then to FCS Austin Peay before surfacing at Arkansas State. He ran for 57 yards and a touchdown in the opener.
The Buckeyes will be without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter against Notre Dame and was limited to just two catches for three yards. Day has said he will not play until he is healthy, which means the opportunity is there for other receivers to step up.
One of those could be Julian Fleming, who missed the opener but seems ready to go against Arkansas State.
Center Luke Wypler was in a walking boot after the game, and Day did not provide an update on whether he will be available. The Buckeyes do not believe it is a long-term injury, and if he can’t go, guard Matthew Jones likely slides over to center and Enokk Vimahi would take over at left guard.
Whether at full strength or not, the Buckeyes definitely took a good first step in its quest to contend for the national championship. Day loved the way the players responded to the adversity of trailing Notre Dame at halftime and would love to see the same countenance on Saturday.
“I’m hoping that the maturity and leadership can lead the way this week,” Day said.