COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — College football’s spotlight will be shining on Ohio Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when No. 2 ranked Ohio State plays fifth-ranked Notre Dame in a nationally televised showdown of blueblood programs.
The Buckeyes are coming off an 11-2 season – great at most places but seen as subpar across Ohio – that included a loss to Michigan for the first time since 2011. Making things worse was that win propelled the Wolverines into the College Football Playoff, which is where the Buckeyes want to be every year.
The pain of that Michigan loss is still fresh for the Buckeyes, and they are taking that into the season.
“Maybe at some places, an 11-2 year with a Rose Bowl victory is a good year,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It isn’t at Ohio State. … I think our guys are a little scarred, they’re a little calloused, they know what it’s like to lose a game and that’s not fun.”
The Buckeyes and Irish have met six times, with four of those meetings occurring in the regular season. The Irish won in 1935 and 1936, but the Buckeyes have won the two more recent regular season games (1995 and 1996) and two bowl meetings.
The Buckeyes had the nation’s best offense in 2021 and should again in 2022. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was a Heisman finalist after throwing for 4.435 yards and 44 touchdowns to only six interceptions. He engineered a thrilling comeback win over Utah in the Rose Bowl, showcasing his touch and arm strength by making many jaw-dropping throws.
Stroud will be helped by the return of junior wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who led the team last year with 95 catches and 1,606 yards, with nine touchdowns. Running back TreVeyon Henderson shone as a freshman, amassing 1255 yards and 15 scores, averaging 6.82 yards per carry. A veteran offensive line returns largely intact, so the offense should not miss a beat in 2022 – even against an Irish defense that has a chance to be among the best nationally.
The importance of a strong start to the season isn’t lost on Day.
“I think our guys feel it. I think they feel the excitement, I think they feel the anticipation, they feel the community rallying around this team,” he said. “That game being a night game, it’s going to be electric. And our guys know that.”
Irish defense is good, not lucky
The Irish were in the top 40 nationally in total defense and 12th in sacks, so they can affect the quarterback. Defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey is the leader up front, and he has a standout group of linebackers, including junior J.D. Bertrand and his 101 tackles.
Like Ohio State, Notre Dame went 11-2 a year ago, but unlike Ohio State, the Irish will be young on offense. Quarterback Tyler Buchner gained limited experience as a freshman, and the receivers have been bitten by the injury bug. Manufacturing points and controlling the clock against an Ohio State defense that was a liability in 2021 would seem to be the best path to victory for the Fighting Irish.
Adding to the plotline is first-year Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman, who was elevated from defensive coordinator after Brian Kelly left for LSU.
Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State from 2004 to ’08 before working on the staff of University of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell as defensive coordinator for four years. He joined Kelly at Notre Dame in 2021.
He’s excited to bring his team into a setting he knows well.
“It’s great for us because there’s no lack of motivation for our guys,” Freeman said. “We can continue to remind them of the great challenge that we have [Saturday]. Being an ultimate competitor, you want to play the best. What better way to measure your team than to play Ohio State.”
Day made some tough calls in the offseason, letting some veteran assistants go and bringing in established names to help retool the defense.
Chief among the hires was defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who molded Oklahoma State into a top-five defense in 2021 – a unit that that was among the most active (nation’s best four sacks per game) and opportunistic (20 forced turnovers).
The difference between Ohio State contending for the national title or winning could come down to the defensive line.
“We’re up to about 75 percent,” Knowles said. “I’m very happy where we’re at. We’ve come a long way since the spring. The players are open to learning, and they want to be great. We’ve been able to get a lot in, but now we’re going to have to get specific. I never expected to get to 100. We’ll keep some things in reserve. My philosophy is to get in as much as you can and have enough so you have answers.”
Knowles won’t do a ton to change OSU’s base 4-2-5 formation, but he does put more of a premium on the safeties playing close to the line of scrimmage, rather than the two high look Ohio State relied on last season.
It has helped to have Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister in the secondary as he knows what Knowles wants and has been able to translate that to teammates. Denzel Burke got raves at corner as a freshman, and he’s joined by veteran Cam Brown, who broke up seven passes but has fought injuries during his career. Getting safety Josh Proctor back from injury should also be a huge boost.
Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg had a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl, with 17 tackles, and could be an impact player. Steele Chambers appears to have the other spot locked up, but there will be a rotation at linebacker depending on the looks opposing offenses are providing.
After ticking down a bit in sacks, this year’s front could put Ohio State back into the upper echelon of college football. Senior Zach Harrison is being counted on a great deal, and sophomore Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau could be on the verge of breakout seasons.