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Irish fail to execute late, fall to Buckeyes in season opener

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.”

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Ohio State

With the Irish currently sitting as 17.5-point underdogs against Ohio State, they are going to need a multitude of things to go their way come Saturday. Limiting the production of Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud will be nearly impossible, but there are other paths to victory for the Irish.

1. Win the turnover battle

This is an obvious one, but it is almost a necessity for Irish to upset the Buckeyes. With a young quarterback in sophomore Tyler Buchner, the Irish will need to avoid turnovers at all costs. Buchner had three crucial interceptions last year, and that is not going to fly in Columbus. Buchner will have his hands full, though, against a much-improved Ohio State defense led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

At cornerback, the Buckeyes will be led by Denzel Burke. Burke is coming off a terrific freshman season and has the potential to become one of the best corners in the league. The Buckeyes will also have plenty of talent at safety with Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor.

Although Proctor got injured last season, he arguably has the potential to become one of the best defensive playmakers in college football. Regardless, he will undoubtedly be a headache for Buchner and the Irish wide receiving corps. The Buckeyes also added Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCallister to further solidify their secondary.

With all this being said, Buchner will need to be precise and decisive in the passing game. If Buchner tries to force passes out to the flat or into tight spaces, the Buckeyes have plenty of playmakers to make Buchner pay for potential mistakes.

On the other side of the football, the Irish need to generate turnovers at opportune moments. The Irish will need anything they can get to take the life out of the crowd, and a timely interception and fumble can do just that. Stroud is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so the Irish will have to get lucky and get turnovers from their top defensive playmakers.

2. Limit Ohio State’s production through the air

C.J. Stroud is going to throw for a lot of yards against Notre Dame, and there is no way around that. What the Irish need to do is limit the big play. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the most important receiver for the Irish to stop. Unfortunately for the Irish, the Buckeyes have plenty of other options in the air. The incredibly athletic Marvin Harrison Jr. is one of these targets. So are Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka, two more reliable options for the Buckeyes to turn to as well.

So how can the Irish limit this lethal Buckeye passing game? The Irish cornerbacks will need to step up big time if they are going to have a chance. Junior Clarence Lewis struggled mightily in the Fiesta Bowl — he will have to be much improved if the Irish are going to stand a chance. Senior Cam Hart needs to step up as well. Although Hart had moments of greatness last season, there were times where he was the weak link of the Irish defensive corps. 

At safety, the Irish will need Northwestern senior safety transfer Brandon Joseph to be on top of his game. If Ohio State comes out of the gate firing with deep passes every which way, this game could be over before the first quarter. So it is vital for the Irish secondary to keep everything in front of them to keep the game close for as long as possible.

3. Develop a run game

Developing a run game is of the utmost importance for an Irish offense that should not try to rely too much on Buchner’s passing ability. The Irish have three great running backs, and it looks like all three of them should see plenty of snaps with no starter being named at the position.

Explosive junior Chris Tyree will likely lead the way for the Irish, bringing plenty of big-play potential. Tyree will be joined in the backfield by sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, who are both ideal for short-run situations but more than capable of breaking a long run as well.

Diggs jumped onto the scene last year with a fantastic game against Virginia Tech, and he finished the year strong with three touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the process. Estime only had a handful of carries, but his six-foot, 228 lb frame should be perfect for goal line and third-and-short situations.

Aside from the running backs, Notre Dame should feature a much-improved offensive line. Sophomore Joe Alt will start at left tackle for the Irish after proving to be one of the best freshmen in the country at his position last year. Preseason AP All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson will line up next to Alt, which should lock up the left side of the line. Alt and Patterson are joined by senior Zeke Correll, graduate student Josh Lugg and sophomore Blake Fisher, who all possess plenty of talent and experience to pave the way for a successful run game.

The Irish need to generate some long, slow drives that eat up the clock and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Buchner himself is very effective on the ground, so look for him to contribute to this run game scheme as well. The Buckeyes have a strong defensive line, so this will be a huge matchup to keep an eye on Saturday night.

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu

Categories
Sports

Irish secondary prepares for prolific Buckeye offense

If Notre Dame has any hope of upsetting Ohio State in Columbus this weekend, they will have to start by slowing down the Buckeyes dynamic passing attack. Despite losing star receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave in the first round of the NFL draft, the Buckeyes still boast likely Heisman contenders quarterback C.J. Stroud and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

All eyes will be on Notre Dame’s secondary, especially junior cornerback Cam Hart, who is likely to be spending most of the contest matched up across from Smith-Njigba. Hart burst onto the scene last year, earning a starting job and recording 42 tackles, nine pass deflections, and two interceptions.

He brings good length and ball skills to the position, as he arrived at Notre Dame as a receiver before switching to defense before his first year, and matches up well size-wise with Smith-Njigba. Limiting the damage will be key, but that’s easier said than done. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns in last year’s Rose Bowl victory for the Buckeyes.

“I think of it like any other game,” Hart said after a practice last week. “I know a lot of people want to put hype into it, and that for players can be very dangerous, so I just try to stay level-headed, and it’s football at the end of the day, so I just go out and play.” 

Hart missed much of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason and was absent for several days of fall camp. But he appears to be fully healthy heading into the season.

The Irish won’t just depend on his performance though. The other cornerbacks, notably junior Clarence Lewis and graduate student TaRiq Bracy will also have to perform at the highest level Saturday. Lewis, in particular, will be looking to bounce back after a rough outing in the Fiesta Bowl defeat to Oklahoma State last year.

Ohio State’s other receiving threats don’t have much experience but aren’t lacking in talent. Julian Fleming was the top receiver and No. 3 overall player in the class of 2020 per 247 Sports. Marvin Harrison Jr. — the son of pro football hall-of-famer Marvin Harrison Sr. — was also a highly touted prospect. The Buckeyes receivers will certainly give the Irish cornerbacks all they can handle.

Of course, the corners won’t handle the entire burden of attempting to stop the Buckeyes offense — the safeties will play a significant role as well. Somehow, the Irish have found a solid replacement for Kyle Hamilton, bringing in Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph. Teammates and coaches have raved about Joseph since the moment he stepped on campus. The expectations are high — he was named a preseason All-American, in addition to the responsibility that Notre Dame has put on his shoulders. But he looks to be more than capable of living up to these lofty goals.

“He’s a perfect fit,” safeties coach Chris O’Leary said. “When you look it, like what kind of guys fit, they have to fit our culture, and that’s not just on the field, that’s work ethic, that’s how they operate in the classroom, that’s how they operate off the field, so he checks all those boxes, and then when you cross the lines he’s a smart, instinctual football player, and all those things fit perfectly within our culture and our team.” 

Coming from the Big 10, Joseph has already played Ohio State twice.

“It definitely makes a difference,” he said. “I’ve game-planned for them before, something that everyone here hasn’t done.”

O’Leary praised the group for being so detail-oriented.

“Whether it’s pre-snap, seeing what the offense is giving us, having a plan for motion and change of formation and those types of things, just the confidence in that area, and they’re playing faster,” he said.

The safeties are a veteran group, led by Joseph and graduate students Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown.

“The three older guys, Brandon, Houston and D.J. have done an amazing job, not only with our group, but with the secondary, of making sure that we’re all tied together, we’re all on the same page,” O’Leary said. “They all lead by example with their work ethic, and they’ve all taken it to the next level as far as vocal leadership and taking command.”

While the group certainly does bring a great deal of experience, they have had to adjust to the scheme of new defensive coordinator Al Golden.

“It’s a whole new defense, there’s a whole different look,” Griffith said. “We’ve got different fronts, different coverages. We’re playing multiple covers sometimes.”

Griffith said communication is essential to the success of the entire defense.

In addition to the experience that the secondary brings, some young players have greatly impressed in fall camp as well. Freshmen corners Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey have particularly stood out.

It is clear that the Irish have a lot of talent in the secondary. But as a group, they are still learning to play together, and under a new scheme. Irish fans will hope they can do enough to slow down Ohio State’s prolific offense Saturday night.

Liam Coolican


Contact Liam at loolica@nd.edu.