With the Buckeyes sitting on only seven points late in the third quarter, Johnson delivered the go-ahead touchdown that would ultimately be the game-winning score in Ohio State’s 21-10 victory. Getting the first extended playing time of his Ohio State career at slot receiver because Jaxon Smith-Njigba had left the game with a leg injury, Johnson beat Notre Dame cornerback Jaden Mickey into the end zone and caught a pass from C.J. Stroud – just one play after his first-ever catch as a Buckeye – for a 24-yard touchdown.
No. 2 @OhioStateFB has the lead. pic.twitter.com/nAKP5Uhuh2
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork)
Then, on Ohio State’s ensuing kickoff, Johnson went right back to playing his usual role on special teams – where nearly all of the fifth-year senior’s playing time came in his first four seasons as a Buckeye – and tackled Notre Dame kickoff returner Chris Tyree at the 13-yard line.
In the national spotlight of a season-opening matchup between two top-five teams, it was a former walk-on who was one of the Buckeyes’ biggest stars of the night. Ryan Day said that speaks to Johnson’s exemplary work ethic – the same work ethic that earned Johnson a scholarship a year ago.
“Xavier Johnson practices every day. Xavier Johnson really cut his teeth on special teams. He’s kind of a throwback player. And for him to come in and play in that moment, in this game right here, I just couldn’t be happier for him,” Day said. “Because it goes to show you that good things happen to good people who work hard. And that’s exactly who Xavier Johnson is. He’s a walk-on that earned a scholarship. And he’s really grown into a really good football player. And we trusted putting him in the game and look what happened. So very happy for him. Well-deserved.”
When Johnson received his scholarship before Ohio State’s game against Oregon in September 2021, he chose not to publicize it at the time because he didn’t want to take any attention away from the team and its goals. Although he was a three-star recruit who turned down scholarship offers from 10 Football Bowl Subdivision schools to play for the Buckeyes, much of his Ohio State career has come with the realities of being a walk-on, as he’s spent time at three different positions – wide receiver, running back and cornerback – and seen most of his work on special teams and on the scout team in practice.
Johnson acknowledged after the game there were times he doubted he would ever get the chance to make the kind of impact for Ohio State that he did on Saturday, and there were times that he considered leaving Ohio State or giving up football altogether. But he relied on his faith and stayed the course, and in the marquee game of college football’s opening weekend, Johnson finally got the chance to show the world what he’s capable of.
“I always relied on my faith and prayer to see where exactly I was supposed to be,” Johnson said. “In that moment, all I could think about was just how good the Lord really is. I mean, that’s kind of, that’s literally it. I was overcome with emotion but it was emotion coming from the standpoint of I’m glorifying the Lord right now. I’m in the right position.”
Stroud was as happy as anyone to see Johnson to get his chance to shine.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Stroud said. “He works really, really hard … he’s a ballplayer, as y’all can see.”
Ransom steps up at safety
While Lathan Ransom wasn’t in the starting lineup for Ohio State’s defense on Saturday, he quickly got his opportunity to play at safety after Josh Proctor attempted to break in front of a pass on Notre Dame’s first play of the game and whiffed to give up a 54-yard catch-and-run to Lorenzo Styles instead.
As a result, Ransom took Proctor’s place in the lineup on Ohio State’s second defensive series of the game. And Ransom played so well that Proctor never got his place in the lineup back.
On a night where Ohio State’s defense collectively held Notre Dame to just 10 points, Ransom was one of the Buckeyes’ biggest individual defensive stars, as he flew around the field to record seven tackles on the night.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who named Ransom multiple times this preseason as a player who impressed him in camp, was impressed once again on Saturday night, saying he left Ransom in the game over Proctor because Ransom was “the hot hand.”
“We saw that in him all camp,” Knowles said of Ransom’s performance against Notre Dame. “I’d say he’s one of those guys that can see the forest through the trees. And then he’s able to read the play and react with speed. When you have a safety, a group of safeties who can do that, it fixes a lot of problems. Because you guys don’t see all the shifts, the motions and the pulls. When you play in this system as a safety, you’re the guy that’s fitting that, and I think it’s just really worked out well with Lathan because that’s his talent. His talent is seeing the play, diagnosing and reacting, and he’s not afraid to get after it and take a shot. And that’s a big deal.”
Knowles coaches from press box
After playing coy when asked during the week if he would coach from the press box or on the field this season, Knowles decided to call the defense from the booth on Saturday night, allowing him to have a clearer picture of the entire field as he made the defensive play calls.
Considering how well the defense played against Notre Dame, it certainly seemed as though that arrangement worked effectively for the Buckeyes’ coaching staff. Knowles said the reason why it worked as well as it did, though, was because of Ohio State’s other defensive assistant coaches – including the support staffers he brought with him from his past stops at Oklahoma State and Duke – and his trust they would be able to effectively communicate his instructions to the players and coach them up as needed.
“We just have a lot of good guys that I felt comfortable with. A lot of knowledgeable, professional coaches,” Knowles said. “And if I can feel comfortable with that, I’m gonna go upstairs. Because that’s where I see everything, and I’m able to see formations as they develop, and make calls. And that makes us all better.”