Ohio State vs. Notre Dame: 3 key matchups and a prediction
We’ve made it. It’s Ohio State week at Notre Dame.
College Gameday is on campus in South Bend and the game is as steeped with storylines as one could want from a college football game on the 4th weekend in September.
Marcus Freeman against his alma mater.
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Ryan Day, 51-6 at Ohio State but somehow still proving himself to a fan base that always expects more.
A top 10 matchup between programs with a combined 19 national championships (that number rises to 38, if you are using Alabama math, because the schools could claim, but admirably do not claim, 19 other titles).
It’s “statement win” time for Ohio State, which was sluggish out of the gate against Indiana but has looked nearly flawless since, albeit against overwhelmed competition.
It’s “prove it” time for the Fighting Irish, who have steamrolled through the early portion of their schedule behind a stout defense and the right arm of Heisman candidate Sam Hartman.
If you love analytics, it’s not just a top 10 matchup, but a top 5 game, with Ohio State No. 1 in SP+ and Notre Dame ranked 4th.
If you love big time talent, this game features 6 players expected to be picked in the first and second round of the NFL Draft: wide receivers Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. and edge defenders JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer of Ohio State, as well as offensive tackle Joe Alt and edge defender Javontae Jean-Baptiste of Notre Dame.
Do we really need any more introduction? Let’s break down 3 matchups that will define who leaves Notre Dame Stadium unbeaten Saturday evening and who leaves with a loss and a dent to their College Football Playoff dreams.
Marvin Harrison Jr. vs. Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart
Does Ohio State win national championship number 9 last season if Marvin Harrison Jr. doesn’t get hurt?
We’ll never know, but the All-American is playing like a man on a mission in the early going in 2023. In 3 games, he’s caught 14 passes, averaged 21.5 per catch, and scored 3 touchdowns.
Is he the best player in college football? It isn’t a ludicrous statement, but it is hard to justify it in games against Indiana, Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Proving it against Morrison and Hart, 2 of the better cornerbacks in college football? That’s a different story.
MARVIN HARRISON JR. 🌰🙌
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 16, 2023
Morrison should draw primary duties. A freshman All-American a season ago, he is a Thorpe Award list corner who grades out as one of the top cover corners in the sport, per PFF. Morrison will be tasked with 1-on-1 situations frequently, one would think, as Marcus Freeman should load up to try and get after Kyle McCord. Ohio State’s young offensive line struggled against Indiana and took a while to find its footing against Western Kentucky. Notre Dame needs pressure, but to get it, they’ll need their corners to hold down the fort on the perimeter. Harrison is built to exploit 1-on-1s, but in Morrison, he’ll meet one of the few guys who looks — at least on film — like he can hang with the All-American.
Morrison loves big games, as evidenced by his huge performance in last season’s Notre Dame win over Clemson. If he’s up to the task on Saturday and can keep Harrison from having a huge day, the Fighting Irish will feel good about their chances to win.
Does Sam Hartman take what Ohio State gives him?
Hartman is such a prolific deep ball thrower that he has a tendency to go for the massive play, even when the play that moves the sticks will do just fine. His higher than usual interception numbers in 2022 at Wake Forest were partly a product of this, but he also threw more interceptions last season because the Demon Deacons were chasing games constantly due to a putrid defense. At Notre Dame, Hartman has a great defense, and Notre Dame doesn’t need to score every time it has the ball (even though Hartman and the offense have scored on over 75% of their possessions this season, an astounding number).
Hartman left yards and first downs on the field in Saturday’s win over Central Michigan, going for the home run too often, according to his head coach. It’s a safe bet that Tobias Merriweather and Jaden Greathouse won’t be wide open down the field all afternoon. Will Hartman take what Ohio State gives him defensively?
The returns this season on Hartman are incredible. He’s leading the country in touchdown passes (13) and he hasn’t thrown an interception. But Hartman now faces an Ohio State squad that ranks 3rd in total defense nationally, 5th in SP+ defense, and 7th in passing defense.
The Buckeyes are coming off a win over Western Kentucky where they stifled Austin Reed, the nation’s leading passer a season ago, limiting the Hilltoppers to 284 yards and 10 points. Denzel Burke is one of the B1G’s best corners. Sonny Styles is blossoming into an All-America caliber safety, which is what you’d expect from a consensus 5-star recruit.
This will be Hartman’s most difficult test defensively this season. Taking the small plays that keep Notre Dame on schedule will be critical for the Fighting Irish.
Ohio State’s zone run game vs. Notre Dame’s mix-and-match LB situation
The Buckeyes prefer to run behind zone blocking schemes. The Buckeyes have an athletic offensive line, better suited for that scheme than gap blocking, and they recruit to scheme. Donovan Jackson, their powerful All-B1G guard who will be among the first linemen selected in the NFL Draft next spring, is a perfect example of a dynamic zone blocker who is less suited for gap blocking and the push required to make it work consistently.
This is also a scheme that better suits both Kyle McCord, who is more comfortable in zone read, zone blocking RPO situations, and TreVeyon Henderson, a patient runner who is shifty but not necessarily a powerful vertical runner and prefers to run downhill at a gap.
Ryan Day and Brian Hartline will want to put McCord in the more favorable RPO passing situations, avoiding deep drops that leave this young offensive line — and their new quarterback — more vulnerable.
On the flip side, Notre Dame will want to mix coverages and try to contain the edges to narrow the field a bit. If they can force Ohio State to try to outpower them, then the Fighting Irish will be able to turn the game over to their excellent set of linebackers.
Of course, for that to work, Notre Dame needs JD Bertrand to play. He suffered a concussion in the NC State game and didn’t play last week. If he is able to go, Bertrand is the stallion in the middle who allows the other Notre Dame linebackers, Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser, to play downhill. Those 3 have played plenty of football together, and their ability to move around pre-snap and diagnose different looks as Ohio State tries to stretch the field could confuse McCord. But for Notre Dame, it all starts with stopping the run game and avoiding playing on their heels.
Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Ohio State 23
This game feels like one where the team with the more experienced quarterback wins. Ohio State’s ability to generate a consistent pass rush against the Fighting Irish would concern me more if the Buckeyes had been generating more pressure this season. But Ohio State enters the game ranked 88th in havoc and 95th in sacks this season. JT Tuimoloau, a consensus preseason All-American, has 0 sacks through 3 games. In other words, there’s nothing on film that says Ohio State will overwhelm a Notre Dame offensive line that, while better at run blocking, still features an All-American in Joe Alt protecting the blind side of their Heisman candidate quarterback.
Hartman will make a couple more plays than Ohio State’s McCord, and the Notre Dame defense will force field goals in vital situations, handing the Fighting Irish a huge win that will put them in prime position for a run at the College Football Playoff.