5 Keys to Notre Dame Defeating Ohio State

Deshone Kizer - Notre Dame QB
Photo: Brian Spurlock // USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason Notre Dame is a touchdown underdog to Ohio State in this year’s Fiesta Bowl matchup on New Year’s Day, and it has everything to do with the Buckeyes winning 25 of their last 27 contests. However, it’s important to remember Notre Dame was also a touchdown underdog to LSU in last year’s Music City Bowl, and the keys to defeating the Tigers, as UHND outlined leading up to kickoff, involved committing to the running game to keep LSU’s talented running back, Leonard Fournette, off the field. The plan worked, and Notre Dame was able to keep pace with LSU’s potent rushing attack, managing a time of possession of 36:39 minutes compared to LSU’s 22:41.

Faced with underdog status in yet another bowl game, what are the keys for a Notre Dame victory on January 1st?

5. Offensive line winning the line of scrimmage

If Notre Dame is going to upset Ohio State the Irish offense will need to score a lot of points, and that starts in the trenches. The offensive line battled through injury for most of November, an issue solidly in the spotlight after the poor showing against Boston College. Notre Dame mustered only 123 rushing yards on 33 attempts against the Eagles, an average of only 3.3 yards per carry.

Fortunately the offensive line appeared to be returning to its early form when Notre Dame ran wild on the Stanford Cardinal. True freshman Josh Adams piled up 168 yards – at an astounding 9.3 yards per carry – and quarterback DeShone Kizer chipped in another 128 yards with his feet.

A similar level of production against the Buckeyes will go a long way toward securing a Notre Dame victory.

4. Control time of possession

Winning the time of possession battle was the most critical component of Notre Dame’s upset victory against LSU, and controlling the clock has to be one of the top priorities against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have made a living pounding their opponents into submission this season with star running back Ezekiel Elliott rushing for over 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns, and quarterback J.T. Barrett rushing for another 500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Keeping the Ohio State offense off the field should be one of the top priorities for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame’s ability to control time of possession has taken a fortuitous upswing in recent days with the suspension of starting defensive tackle Adolphus Washington following a solicitation citation and the foot injury to fellow defensive tackle Tommy Schutt, whose status for the Fiesta Bowl remains unclear. A healthy Irish offensive line against an increasingly depleted Ohio State interior line could play a critical role in Notre Dame landing an upset victory.

3. Contain Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett

Defenses have to pick and choose their battles, and in the case of Ohio State, it’s a no-brainer. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder needs to sell out on stopping Ohio State’s potent rushing attack. Ezekiel Elliot and J.T. Barrett are both averaging over 6 yards per rushing attempt, and the Buckeye offense had a coming out party against bitter rival Michigan, embarrassing the Wolverines 42-13. Ohio State cut through Michigan’s defense to the tune of 482 yards of total offense, with Elliot rushing for 214 yards and Barrett piling on another 139 of his own. The duo combined for 5 touchdowns on the ground.

With Urban Meyer’s team displaying flashes of the unit that tore through last year’s College Football Playoff, it’s imperative that Notre Dame devote all of its resources to forcing the Buckeyes into an aerial attack.

2. Limit big chunk plays on obvious passing downs

Notre Dame did a superb job of bottling up Stanford’s Heisman finalist, running back Christian McCaffrey, in Notre Dame’s 38-36 season finale loss in Palo Alto, but there is a misconception amongst Irish fans that the big chunk plays surrendered against Stanford were due to VanGorder’s defense selling out to stop the run. That is simply not the case. Notre Dame’s secondary gave up big chunk plays to Stanford in obvious passing situations, such as Devon Cajuste’s 42-yard touchdown reception on third and long when safety Elijah Shumate was confused as to who he should be covering while playing in man coverage.

The Irish defense has proven it can contain elite rushing attacks but it has shown zero improvement in coverage. If Kelly’s squad has any chance to win in Arizona the defense must prevent big plays in obvious passing situations, which was Notre Dame’s ultimate downfall against Stanford.

1. Score touchdowns in the red zone

A reoccurring issue for Brian Kelly’s offense since his arrival in South Bend five years ago is its inability to score touchdowns once inside the red zone. Notre Dame boasts some of the worst red zone production in the nation and is tied for No. 89 overall. Failing to score inside the 20 yard line derailed Notre Dame against Stanford, and if not significantly improved, will cost Notre Dame once again. The Buckeye’s defense ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring defense and No. 6 in red zone defense, and anything less than a perfect red zone performance will see Notre Dame losing yet another major bowl game.

Overall, Notre Dame’s status as an underdog is justified. But the elements to pull off an upset against Ohio State are there, just as they were present last year against LSU. Now the task is for Brian Kelly to make sure his players execute.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on twitter.

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  1. There’s actually 3 D1 guys including BK.
    Andy Talley of Villanova fame and the always funny Jimmye Laycock of W&M heritage.

  2. Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione is taking his 213 victories and going home.

    With the retirement of Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer (279 victories), the 2016 season will begin with only one college head coach who has won at least 200 games.


  3. Alabama can play defense year in year out! thus their right there every year! until ND plays better on defense,this is the best it can be[10-2] GO IRISH!

  4. This is an opportunity for ND and fans of ND. I am waiting with great anticipation for the game to start. Let’s face it, OSU I would imagine believes this game is already won, basing that on part, to prior history on just the last 3 times these 2 teams have played going back to 1995. I hope they feel that way because OSU isn’t going to see them (ND) coming when they get their buckheads knocked around by the Irish.

    Time to take the buckheads to the wood shed!
    Prevail thy Irish lads, prevail. Hail to victory!

  5. Maybe BK will start chasing points in the first half instead of waiting till 3rd qtr like he did in the two losses. Haha

  6. Frustration. Defense does win championships. Yet red zone offense contributed greatly. Non scoring, penalties, turnovers and FG instead of TD’s would have helped the defense to play the games more in their favor. Even with one loss, OU needed to get picked. Didn’t happen. Some believed not large enough margin of victory would have left ND out. Mute point with Stanford defeat. The two losses were as much on the offense not converting TD’s and red zone turnovers. That said. This team is on the cusp being domineering and polished. Thanks.

  7. I flat out don’t trust this defense. This offense can play with and in most cases out play any other offense in the country including OSU. This defense is the sole reason why we are not 12-0 and playing in the playoffs. Even with all the injuries this should have been a playoff team.

    Hopefully we can win the TOP like we did versus LSU last year. BK came out with a great game plan and a even better one will be needed versus the defending champs. My heart wants to say Irish win but my head says Ohio State wins a high scoring game 38-31.

  8. I like our chances. The difference will be in the coaching. Love him or hate him, Meyer is good. Time for BK to prove he is elite.

    Go IRISH!


  9. Jarron Jones has a year left regardless of whether he plays in the bowl game. He was red shirt as a freshman. There seems to be confusion about medical red shirts. You can only get a medical red shirt if you have not previously red shirt and/or you have previously had a medical red shirt. So. he is back next year because he has a year of eligibility left.

  10. My confidence is high. Notre Dame’s level of competition has been better most of the year than Ohio State’s. They have played against a wide variety, and some very good offenses. Now they only have to concentrate against one more. With Jarron Jones’ return, I not only feel our pass rush will improve, but I have more confidence in Joe Schmidt. My only real fear on defense is Butler starting for Russell. Our offense should be fresh and ready to go. When you add a healthy Smythe to that mix, I hope to see an under performing part of our offense this year take a step forward. Our team showed no quit and the ability to compete with some of the best teams in the nation this year. No disrespect to the Scarlett Scourge but they have not really been very battle tested this year and I think they will have their hands full trying to shut down our offense. Conversely on defense we did a fairly good job against Reynolds (Navy), Thomas (Temple), Gallman (Clemson), And McCaffrey (Stanford) in the run game. If we can tighten up on the perimeter, stop missing assignments, and score a few times in the red zone, we should take these guys. Any way, Go Irish!

  11. Does ND have a shot? Yes, as Scott noted the tools are there. They just have to use them properly. OSU is going to score some points. The key will be for ND’s offense to score more and for the defense to do it’s job and not get rattled.

    ND had issues with inconsistency this year. But then, so has OSU. That’s why ultimately I give this game 50-50. OSU has shown flashes of greatness, but also flashes of mediocrity, just like ND. And both teams are disappointed they are not in the playoffs. But I give the edge their a bit to ND. Coming of an NC and having most of their players from last year, OSU is probably more disappointed not to be in the playoffs than ND. Don’t underestimate the effect that can have on college kids. ND, for all the disappointment, is playing with what was a 3rd string QB and 2nd to 3rd string RB’s, along with multiple other injuries. When Zaire went down, no one thought the Irish had much of a chance. And I believe they realize winning this game can help recruiting which in turn helps win NC down the road. Lose badly and you can easily lose recruits. Keep the game respectable and/or win, that can turn some recruits to your side.

  12. Question – I see Jaron Jones will be back for the bowl game. Couldn’t he sit out and petition for a medical red shirt 6th year of eligibility? Doesn’t seem smart to play 20 downs and lose a full year of football. He will go undrafted, but if able to return and play a full season he would clearly have a chance at being a NFL selection….and help the team tremendously in 2016.

  13. Would love to see Notre Dame win, but watching their defense this year I think its a long shot. What I’m hoping for is seeing some wrinkles in the red zone- being creative, misdirection- lead blockers, more tight ends – quarterback under center. Please try something different.

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