Marcus Freeman begins his first full season as head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with as stiff a challenge as any newcomer could expect. That’s because he has to find a way to lead his team to a road win over another national title contender in the Oho State Buckeyes.
These two teams haven’t met in the regular season since 1996, with both schools having their ups and downs since then. However, both teams are focused on delivering a championship in 2022, with preseason polls showing the Buckeyes ranked second in the Top 25, while the Irish are in the fifth spot.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch in this important clash:
QB Tyler Buchner vs. Ohio State Defense
Last season, it was Jack Coan behind center and this season it’ll be Buchner. The good news is that Buchner gained some valuable experience last season. One concern is that his appearance in 10 games last year showed that he was more effective as a runner than a passer. He rushed for 336 yards and averaged 7.3 yards per carry, while completing just 21 passes. Three of those went for touchdowns, but he also tossed three picks.
Ohio State returns plenty of defenders from last year’s 11-2 squad, though their defensive coaching staff underwent an overhaul during the offseason. Yet even with that talent, teams like Tulsa, Penn State and Purdue were able to put up big passing numbers. In addition, the Buckeyes’ run defense was shredded during their two losses. Whether the new tutors have plugged those holes remains to be seen, but could be interesting to watch.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB C.J. Stroud
Freeman’s Notre Dame career began with a second-half collapse in last season’s Fiesta Bowl as the Irish watched a 28-14 halftime lead result in a 37-35 defeat. Facing a team of Ohio State’s caliber, the Irish have no similar margin of error. They have their own departures to fill and need to find a way to stop at least limit the damage that will come from the Buckeyes offense.
Stroud is a strong Heisman candidate after finishing fourth in last year’s balloting. That was after he’d thrown for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns, completing nearly 72 percent of his passes. He’s a player who doesn’t make very many mistakes, getting picked off just six times last year, though he’s not much of a runner. Delivering heat in his direction is imperative if the Irish expect to win.
ROVER Isaiah Foskey vs. OT Paris Johnson/Dawand Jones
Foskey’s emergence last season coincided with the arrival of Freeman on the Irish coaching staff, with another big year likely making the Irish defender a top draft pick next spring. He lines up on both sides of the Notre Dame defense, which is why both Buckeyes tackles are listed. Foskey led the Irish in both sacks and tackles-for-loss last year and delivering constant pressure on Stroud is vitally important, given the weapons he can choose from.
How Johnson handles Foskey is important, simply because the Notre Dame end will be racing from Stroud’s blind side. Johnson, who moved over from right guard, is seen right now as a better run blocker than protecting against the pass. Jones has a similar resume and will present a lighter image after dropping weight during the offseason. On either side, Foskey can create havoc.
RB Chris Tyree vs. MIKE Tommy Eichenberg
Staying healthy may determine if Tyree remains in the role of the team’s top running back. A turf toe injury last year limited him to fleeting moments of brilliance, which showed hints of what he might accomplish. As a freshman, he twice rushed for over 100 yards. He could serve as a valuable receiving option in certain situations, showing his ability last season with a receiving TD in that Fiesta Bowl loss.
Eichenberg happens to be the younger brother of former Note Dame tackle Liam Eichenberg and is making his own impact on the field. He was second on the Buckeyes in tackles and ended last year with a 17-tackle performance in the Rose Bowl. He’s got excellent size, makes few mistakes and will be a challenge to neutralize from the start of the game.
NICKEL TaRiq Bracy vs. WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
Bracy has experience, though he’s also given up some big plays during that time. Some of his struggles came during the disastrous Fiesta Bowl collapse, so he could use that memory as motivation to bounce back. He’ll need help from his teammates in trying to handle Smith-Njigba, with the hope being that the Buckeyes wideout will have a quiet night.
If last year is any indication, Stroud will be targeting Smith-Njigba frequently after the slot receiver snagged a team-high 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He can get deep, stop on a dime and is yet another Ohio State talent who may hear his name called early in next year’s draft. Containment appears to be the only realistic strategy against him.