Hayes: Will Ohio State be destroyer or victim of Irish QB Sam Hartman's storybook college swan song?
Let’s look at this thing strictly from a personnel standpoint.
Last season in Columbus, Notre Dame trotted out Tyler Buchner to play quarterback in an ugly loss at Ohio State. The same Tyler Buchner who was benched in his 1st start at Alabama last weekend — against USF, the worst Power 5 team of the last 2 seasons.
This time around, it’s Sam Hartman.
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This time around, in the biggest Notre Dame home game in years, the Irish have the potential of what could be at the most important position on the field.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us as a program and as a team,” Hartman said at his Monday press conference. “To go out there and show what we got.”
The question is, what exactly does Notre Dame have?
Is it a storybook fit for the biggest brand in college football, or a reality check in the biggest game of Hartman’s career?
Make no mistake, Hartman played in big games at Wake Forest while setting the ACC record for career touchdown passes (110) and helping coach Dave Clawson redefine the program with his slow mesh offense.
Hartman got knocked around in 2 big losses to Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson (2018, 2020), and even got thumped by Notre Dame (2018). Even though he thrived in 5 seasons at Wake Forest, he had a 3-8 record in games vs. ranked teams, throwing 13 interceptions in those 11 games.
But when he announced at the end of last season that he was leaving Wake Forest and entering the transfer portal, he immediately became the top quarterback available. It’s rare when experienced, accurate throwers — with big statistical resumes — hit the portal.
Alabama and Florida (among others) threw NIL money at him, and so did Notre Dame. He chose the Irish, he says, because of coach Marcus Freeman — and what could be in 2023.
Now here we are 4 games into the season, and it’s just about what Freeman — and frankly, every coach who wanted Hartman — thought it would be. He has been flawless in 4 gimme putt games, throwing 13 TDs without an interception and energizing Notre Dame’s stagnant pass game.
As the Ohio State game arrives, it’s Notre Dame with the clear advantage at quarterback — and the Buckeyes trotting out the unknown in 1st-year starter Kyle McCord.
“(Hartman) has played in games like this,” Freeman said. “This moment won’t be too big for Sam. Year 6 for him. I have a lot of confidence that he’ll be well prepared and the moment won’t be too big for him at all.”
Translation: we’ve got the ace in the deck this time around.
You’re not going to see Hartman short-hop throws, or miss on timing and anticipation, or underthrow a deep ball. That was last season — that was Buchner’s first career start, on the road in Columbus.
Hartman has been there before, in the early stages of his prolific Wake Forest career when he completed 43 percent of his passes in 2 losses to Clemson, throwing for 256 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. The Deacons were overwhelmed by the Clemson talent on both sides of the ball — and that’s where Saturday’s game could be different for the latest iteration of Hartman.
This Ohio State team, outside of the quarterback position, is more talented than those Clemson teams. An NFL scout told Saturday Tradition the Buckeyes will likely have the most players selected in the 2024 NFL Draft, with as many as 8-9 picks in the first 2 days of the draft, 13 in the Top 100 and as many as 16-18 players selected depending on underclassmen leaving early.
But while Ohio State has struggled somewhat to gain traction with McCord, Notre Dame has steamrolled 4 overmatched opponents. Hartman has been so good, and so accurate, Notre Dame receivers have gone from a significant question to begin the season to a dangerous group in just 4 games.
WR Chris Tyree averaged 5.8 yards per catch last season. He’s at 27 this season (8 catches, 2 TDs). He and Jayden Thomas (15.7 ypc) and Tobias Merriweather (26.2 ypc) are different players with Hartman.
Freshman WR Jaden Greathouse (3 TDs) may be the most talented receiver on the team. Then there’s sophomore TE Holden Staes, who caught 1 pass last season — and already has 4 TD catches in 2023.
Hartman, meanwhile, has completed 71 percent of his passes and is averaging nearly 12 yards per attempt. The ball is going downfield, and defenses can’t stop it.
And those concerns that the Wake Forest slow mesh offense protected Hartman from sacks and pressures? He has been sacked 4 times in 4 games — all in the same game (NC State).
“That’s the problem for Notre Dame,” an ACC coach told Saturday Tradition. “(NC State) did some exotic stuff with pressures, and Notre Dame had problems with it. You’re taking a big step up in talent against Ohio State. They pressure better, they cover better.”
Which brings us all the way back to the assessment from a personnel standpoint. Ohio State has the better players, but Notre Dame has the quarterback.
“Sam Hartman knows this is about him going out there and going through his checklist,” Freeman said. “Executing the things he needs to go through to have success.”
Prior to the 2022 season, Hartman was diagnosed with Paget-Schroetter syndrome, and had to undergo surgery to prevent blood clots. Part of that process included removing the rib closest to his collarbone.
Hartman kept the rib, stuck in his freezer and his mother eventually cleaned the flesh from the bone so Hartman could use it as part of a necklace.
That’s right, a necklace.
“I think it’s all about 1 play, 1 life mentality,” Hartman said.
And 1 big reality check — that could lead to a storybook season.