Ohio State vs. Notre Dame: Prediction and final thoughts
Two of the nation’s most storied college football programs face off Saturday night when No. 5 Notre Dame visits No. 2 Ohio State in Ohio Stadium (7:30 pm, ABC). The Buckeyes are huge favorites (-17.5 at the time of this writing from our friends at FanDuel), but whatever the smart folks in Vegas seem to think, it’s must-see television any time two top-5 teams get together, and even more special when the game features two of the sports blue-bloods that have combined to win 19 national championships and 14 Heismans.
For Notre Dame, it’s a chance to change a national narrative that while the Fighting Irish can prey on lesser opponents, they still aren’t a program that can win the big games against College Football Playoff-caliber competition. The game also marks the beginning of a new era of Notre Dame football, with 36-year-old Marcus Freeman (a former All-Big Ten linebacker at Ohio State), opening his first full season as the Fighting Irish’s energetic and magnetic young head coach.
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For Ohio State, it’s a chance to start the fourth full year of the Ryan Day era with a résumé win over a quality opponent. Day has been marvelous (34-4!) since replacing his mentor Urban Meyer in Columbus. The one thing he hasn’t done? Win the national championship. Armed with a team that returns 14 starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback CJ Stroud, from last year’s Rose Bowl champions, the 2022 squad represents Day’s best chance yet at a national title and that journey begins Saturday night at the Shoe.
Here are 3 final thoughts on the Notre Dame-Ohio State game, along with a prediction.
Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense must be aggressive
The only way to beat Ohio State in the Ryan Day era has been to jump on them early and make Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offenses play from behind. In both of Ohio State’s losses in 2021, the Buckeyes trailed early and never led. Oregon, which like Notre Dame, got the Buckeyes early in the season, jumped to an early lead with aggressive play-calling, especially on a 99-yard drive in the 2nd quarter where Mario Cristobal let his young quarterback Anthony Brown throw his way out of the shadows of his own goal posts. The Ducks led Ohio State 21-7 and 28-14 in the game, forcing Wilson out of his comfort zone as one of the game’s best “rhythm” play-callers, and keeping the insane asylum that was Ohio Stadium at bay.
The Fighting Irish, with Tyler Buchner making his first career start, cannot afford to play conservative football. They have to take some chances on offense early and see if they can make Stroud and the Buckeyes’ potent offense play from behind. Expect a heavy dose of Buchner to Michael Mayer, Notre Dame’s All-American tight end, early in the football game, with Rees using different formations and motion as eye candy to free his superstar weapon up in the pass game.
What does this Jim Knowles Ohio State defense look like?
Day dismissed his entire defensive staff after last season’s Rose Bowl. Jim Knowles was brought in after building Oklahoma State into the Big 12’s most consistent defensive operation, and after coaching the nation’s 3rd-ranked defense last season — he is tasked with improving an Ohio State defense that was the program’s worst from a statistical standpoint in over a decade.
Ohio State ranked 59th in total defense, 20th in SP+ efficiency defense (their worst number since 2011), and a downright awful 96th in pass efficiency defense in 2021. Knowles, who was known for having sensational secondaries in Stillwater, will freeze out the deep passing lanes and play press coverage to afford his defensive line additional time to pressure the quarterback on short and intermediate routes. Knowles never had Ohio State talent at Oklahoma State — it will be fun to see how his scheme translates with a top 5 blue-chip roster.
The good news for Notre Dame?
Tommy Rees was one of the only offensive coordinators in America who could solve the riddles posed by Knowles’ defensive schemes last season. The Fighting Irish lit Oklahoma State up for 551 total yards (a season-high vs. a top-5 Oklahoma State defense) and 2 of Notre Dame’s top returners in the passing game, Mayer and receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., combined for 209 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns in a thriller won by the Cowboys.
Rees just saw Knowles’ scheme up close and personal — he should be able to use that film to develop wrinkles to attack it Saturday night.
Can ND make OSU one-dimensional on offense?
Stroud and star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba will get theirs, but the key is whether Notre Dame can slow the Buckeyes’ run game.
Ohio State returns 3 superstars from an offense that ranked No. 1 in America in 2021 in total offense and SP+ efficiency offense and No. 3 nationally in explosive plays. Notre Dame isn’t going to “stop” Ohio State and if the Fighting Irish win, the game will be played in the high 20s or 30s.
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Instead, Notre Dame needs to leverage its strength — along the defensive line where NFL talents like Isaiah Foskey and Howard Cross III make their living — into forcing Ohio State to rely solely on Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and the passing game.
That’s easier said than done, as Ohio State’s third offensive superstar is running back TreVeyon Henderson, who ran for 1,255 yards as a true freshman on his way to Honorable Mention All-American honors. That said, while Ohio State’s o-line should eventually become a dominant unit in 2022, they did lose first-team All-American Nicholas Petit-Frere (Round 3, Tennessee Titans) and left guard Thayer Munford (Round 7, Los Angeles Rams), who combined for 75 collegiate starts, up front. Munford wasn’t as acclaimed as Petit-Frere, but he’s earned a starting job in the NFL for the Super Bowl champions as a rookie. Talk about value! The Buckeyes return only 45 career starts up front, so this unit is not particularly battle tested.
Prediction: Ohio State 35, Notre Dame 23 (Fighting Irish with the points)
The Fighting Irish will keep things close for a half, as Rees finds ways to make Buchner comfortable in the passing game and, forced to choose between doubling Michael Mayer and containing the speedy Buchner in the pocket, Ohio State surrenders a big play or two to the Notre Dame passing game.
In the end, though, the Buckeyes will be too much offensively for Notre Dame, and playing at home against a quarterback making his first career start, the new-look Ohio State defense will force a second-half turnover or two that breaks Notre Dame’s back and salts away a hard-earned win for Ohio State.