The fifth-ranked Irish battled hard in the season opener against the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, but Notre Dame failed to score in the second half and Ohio State battled back to secure a 21-10 victory on Saturday night in Columbus.
The Irish started off the night in a big way with a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles down the sideline. An Ohio State penalty set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 16-yard line, but the Irish drive faltered after three straight running plays. The Irish managed to get on the board, though, with graduate student kicker Blake Grupe nailing a 33-yard field goal to give the Irish an early lead.
After stopping the Buckeyes at midfield on their opening drive, the Irish got the ball back at their own five-yard line. They got backed up even more, though, after a two-yard loss from sophomore running back Audric Estime and a false start penalty. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner managed to give the Irish some breathing room on second down, but the Irish failed to convert on the third and were forced to punt.
On the ensuing drive, a pass interference penalty for senior cornerback Cam Hart set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 35-yard line. A few plays later, Buckeyes’ quarterback C.J. Stroud found wide receiver Emeka Egbuka on a pass to the flat, who eluded the Irish defense to score the game’s first touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 7-3 lead with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter.
A few possessions later, the Irish put together their most impressive drive of the game. A circus catch from graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno on a third and short kickstarted the drive and set the Irish up in Buckeye territory. The terrific catch put the Irish in great shape and earned Buchner’s praise after the game.
“He’s one of our best receivers and he made a huge play,” Buchner said. “And I was thankful that he came down with it.”
The Irish continued to move the ball after Salerno’s catch with Buchner, finding junior tight Kevin Bauman on the ensuing play to set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 12-yard line. After two run plays, the Irish converted another big third down on a pass to junior tight end Michael Mayer to set up a first and goal from the one-yard line. After an Ohio State timeout, Estime leaped over the pile to score the first touchdown of the season for Notre Dame and give the Irish a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
After a few empty possessions for both teams, Ohio State wasted no time moving the ball down the field on their final drive of the first half. C.J. Stroud got the drive going, completing pass after pass to get the Buckeyes into Irish territory. Running back TreVeyon Henderson had an impressive 16-yard run as well to set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 25-yard line. The Buckeyes’ drive stalled a few plays later, however, and a missed 39-yard field goal allowed the Irish to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
Ohio State’s frustration on offense continued to build at the start of the second half after the Buckeyes went three and out on their opening drive. They also failed to score on their second drive of the half, as well.
The Irish offense couldn’t capitalize on their first two possessions, though, allowing the Buckeyes to stay within three. Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that his team’s strategy was to limit the Buckeyes’ possessions and milk the clock as much as possible offensively.
“We wanted to control the clock, limit their offensive possessions, and run the football,” Freeman said. “It was a 10-7 game until seconds left in the third quarter, so we knew we weren’t going to try to outscore them.”
But a turning point came late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes marched down the field for a 70-yard touchdown drive. Stroud started the drive off by showing off his play-making abilities on the opening play, eluding multiple pass rushers and then finding Emeka Egbuka for a 16-yard completion on the run. After a false start penalty, Stroud then found wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. on the following play for another 11 yards.
Set up at the Irish 48-yard line, the Buckeyes continued to move deeper into Irish territory. A personal foul call backed the Buckeyes up into a second and long situation. However, the Buckeyes overcame the penalty. Stroud found wide receiver Xavier Johnson down the middle for a go-ahead 24-yard touchdown pass.
The Irish desperately needed an answer on the ensuing drive, and it looked like they were off to a good start, as Buchner found graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy for a 32-yard play to open the drive. On the following play, junior running back Chris Tyree ran for 14 yards to set the Irish up at the Ohio State 41-yard line. But a crucial offensive pass interference call against Salerno backed the Irish up, eventually forcing Notre Dame to punt.
After getting the ball back, the Buckeyes put the Irish away for good, courtesy of a 95-yard touchdown drive powered by the run game. Running back Miyan Williams carried the ball on the final five plays of the drive. His two-yard rushing touchdown with just under five minutes to play in the game all but solidified an Ohio State victory.
“They had four rushing big plays in the fourth quarter,” Freeman said. “That is a heartbreaker for a defense when you are giving up big plays to an offense that is running the ball. We have to be able to finish and execute.”
An Irish three and out on their next possession further cemented that reality. The Irish punted, and Ohio State ran the clock out to secure the season opening victory over Notre Dame. While the Irish fought hard, Freeman was ultimately disappointed in his team’s execution and inability to respond offensively late in the game.
“We didn’t finish the game. We didn’t execute,” Freeman said. “I think we learned that we have a good football team, but we have to learn how to finish. We battled for two and a half quarters, but then they scored 17 seconds before the end of the third quarter and we don’t respond. And then they go and score again in the fourth quarter, and that’s the game.”
The Irish will return to action in the home opener next week against Marshall, and Freeman is excited to get back to work and get the first win of the season next week.
“We have a lot to learn from this game,” Freeman said. “The beauty of this thing is we don’t have to wait 245 days. We have seven days for another opportunity, so we have to get back to work.”