“There’s no such thing as a moral victory.”
As head coach Marcus Freeman himself said, Saturday night was no moral victory for Notre Dame. No matter how long the Irish kept the Buckeyes at bay, according to the scoreboard, the Irish lost. Plain and simple. Those three points that edged the team ahead until the end of the third do not matter when that final score reads 10-21.
“We didn’t win.”
However, this sentiment does not mean that the season opener was meaningless. Yes, Freeman and his team learned that they needed to execute late in the game. Just like the 2022 Fiesta Bowl, the Irish fell apart in the third quarter, rendering them unable to turn the game back around in the end. Notre Dame learned this, but I learned something else watching them on that field Saturday night: the Irish have an unsung hero in their ranks. And that hero is sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s passing game.
Buchner is known for being a runner. In his debut season, he recorded 336 rushing yards without playing every game in full. Yet in Columbus, it was his arm that pushed the Irish cause forward. His 18 rushing yards pale in comparison to the 177 he gained from passing.
He started the match with a bullet of a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr., initiating a drive that would make Notre Dame first on the board. But even then, every successive play of that sequence was a rush, ending with the need to call in the field goal unit as opposed to racing for the end zone. Despite the strong opening play and the three points that eventually came from it, it is this scoring drive that is the true testament to what this offense could be should Buchner be allowed to utilize his passing game in a greater capacity.
The momentum for the offense came when Buchner connected with graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno for a highlight reel catch. This play was quickly followed by a 22-yard pass to junior tight end Kevin Bauman, which was paired with a rush by Chris Tyree–a new role for the running back, and perhaps one with untapped potential–and another pass to Michael Mayer to put the Irish at the one. From there, sophomore running back Audric Estime rose over the throng to plow ahead that final yard into the end zone, putting Notre Dame in the lead they would maintain until the end of the third quarter. Based solely on the number of yards for each play of that drive, it was not the rushing game that put the Irish in a scoring position, but big passes from Buchner that enabled the touchdown.
Buchner may be a runner, but his showing at OSU demonstrated he should not be limited to that facet of his game. Sometimes, it just makes sense to plant your feet and throw as opposed to scrambling around the defenders; and clearly, Buchner has the talent to not put those passes to waste.
That is not to say that Buchner should completely neglect his run game. On the contrary, his speed is useful in the quarterback position and can be employed when need be. Instead, the Irish should not be afraid to experiment.
Attempting to plow through the defensive line only got the team so far. Rushing yards only accounted for 30% of the total yardage on the night, and yet run plays were the ones most consistently called. And as a third down efficiency of 23.1% can speak to, the Irish need to tweak the offensive game plan.
The Irish should focus on developing a choreography of passes and runs. They need to use every tool they have in their arsenal as opposed to consistently rushing the field. Doing so would keep the defense on their toes and would maximize every asset of the Irish offense.
Use Buchner’s pass game. Use Tyree and his speed at receiver instead of running back. Try it out, and see what happens. There may be no moral victories for the Irish, but these changes could lead to plenty of true ones in the future.