COLUMBUS — Is it time to consider the possibility Ohio State’s standout wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba might not play the rest of the season?
Ohio State coach Ryan Day doesn’t think so. Neither does the Buckeyes’ receivers coach Brian Hartline.
Smith-Njigba has played briefly in three games and missed five games entirely, including last week’s 44-31 win over Penn State, because of a lingering hamstring injury.
When Day was asked during his weekly press conference on Tuesday if he is still hopeful Smith-Njigba could play at some point this season, he said, “Absolutely.”
Day also said he is confident OSU can achieve its goals – winning all its games, winning the Big Ten championship and bringing home a national championship – even if Smith-Njigba doesn’t play.
“I think we can,” he said. “But at the same time, I’d love to have him back, as I’m sure you can imagine. But this team is working hard and that’s why we build depth. You don’t know. And I’m sure more adversity is coming our way. We’re in November now so you never know what’s coming.”
Hartline said he has “a huge level of confidence” that Smith-Njigba can return to the field during the regular season or the postseason.
“He’s beating himself up a little bit. He’s been better this week,” he said. “He wants to play in the worst way and he’s frustrated.”
Smith-Njigba set Ohio State records with 95 catches for 1,606 yards last season. But he was injured in the first half of the season opener against Notre Dame and has suffered setbacks in two attempts to come back since then.
He sat out the Arkansas State game before testing his leg against Toledo in the third game of the season but aggravated the injury and missed OSU’s next three games against Wisconsin, Rutgers and Michigan State.
He was in action for around 20 plays in a 54-10 win over Iowa but limped off the field, did not return and did not make the trip to Penn State. Last Tuesday, Day said the plan was for Smith-Njigba to be ready for that game.
Ohio State has survived the absence of its leading receiver because of the level of talent and the depth it has at the receivers positions.
Marvin Harrison Jr. has 48 catches for 783 yards and 10 touchdowns. Emeka Egbuka has 47 catches for 788 yards and 8 touchdowns and Julian Fleming has 19 catches for 354 yards and 6 touchdowns. And tight end Cade Stover has emerged as a pass catcher with 24 receptions for 309 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Some other thoughts from Day:
• Miyan Williams’ injury: Day wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the injury that forced running back Miyan Williams out of the Penn State game in the first quarter and said any decision on Williams’ availability when No. 2 OSU (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) plays at Northwestern (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) Saturday will not be announced until a few hours before the game.
He did say Williams’ injury, which appeared to involve his wrist or his hand, was sort of a freak injury.
“That was a very strange thing that happened. He was over by the sideline and when he got to the sideline the sideline crew didn’t drop the chains. So his hand and his arm got caught in the chain marker and he got banged up,” Day said. “I guess the best thing I can say is it’s not serious.”
• Not watching: Day said he didn’t plan to watch the ESPN show announcing the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season on Tuesday night.
“I will not watch it. I will be at practice. And if I’m not at practice I will be watching film, getting ready for Northwestern. Do I think we deserve to be in the top four? Absolutely. Do I think it matters all that much right now? No. What matters is beating Northwestern.”
• Taking nothing for granted: The fact that Ohio State is a huge favorite over Northwestern should not affect the Buckeyes’ approach this week, Day said.
“We’ve always said it’s about us. So why does that change this week? It doesn’t matter. Last week, going into Penn State it was about us and about our preparation. I think that is the first thing. Let’s just focus on us and getting better.
“I think the second thing is you have to continue doing what you’re doing every week. Our goals are still our goals. It’s a Big Ten match-up, it’s on the road, Fitz (Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald) does an unbelievable job. Maybe they don’t have the record they want but we have to go play football and we want to play at a high level. That’s the goal here. It really shouldn’t matter who we’re playing against,” he said.
• Running game struggles: In its last two games, Ohio State has rushed for 66 yards against Iowa and 98 yards against Penn State after averaging more than 200 yards a game on the ground in its first six games.
Day said there is not just one reason for that drop. “I think when you look at each of them (unsuccessful running plays), each of them is different. Each style of team we play has a different style up front. There certainly were some runs we could have blocked better. There were some runs that were blocked very well.
“We’ve just got to continue to work at it and swing at it and get more efficient at it. But there is nothing in there that is just glaring, like ‘Oh my God, we can’t run the ball outside or block these guys or we can’t read the hole.
“It sounds kind of like loser talk but it’s true. It was kind of one guy on each play but that’s how it works in football. We can clean it up and we have to clean it up to get more efficient early in the game because that’s when it’s at its hardest.”
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.