No loss is fun to write about, but too many big game losses for Notre Dame over the last 20 years have ended in Notre Dame playing like they didn’t belong on the field with their opponent. But fortunately, that is not what happened on Saturday night in Columbus when many predicted that is precisely what would happen. Instead, Notre Dame did a lot right and for three quarters looked like they might shock the world.
Marcus Freeman not looking like a rookie head coach
During the Fiesta Bowl – specifically in the second-half collapse, Marcus Freeman looked like a rookie head coach. He didn’t look in control for a good portion of that game. Fortunately, that is not what we saw Saturday night in Columbus. Freeman was most certainly the man in charge of Notre Dame, and while the operation wasn’t always the most smooth, Freeman didn’t look like a rookie head coach figuring things out on the fly.
You could argue that Freeman didn’t look any different than Brian Kelly has looked in similar circumstances for Notre Dame despite his twenty-plus years of head coaching experience. That’s a big positive out of this game because Ohio State is the kind of team that could have put an embarrassing loss on Notre Dame if Freeman didn’t have his team ready to play (see 2017 Miami). That’s not what happened.
Freeman has a lot of work ahead of him yet, but for those concerned that Freeman might not be able to have this team ready to play a big game on the road, those concerns should have been put to ease.
Tyler Buchner’s composure in his first start
Like Freeman, there was the chance for Tyler Buchner to look like a first-time starting quarterback because he was making his first start in three years. Buchner, however, never looked rattled or lost in the moment. Sure there were some plays that Buchner probably would like to have back, but he didn’t look like a first-time starter and never made the catastrophic mistake that first time starters tend to make in big games on the road.
Had Buchner gotten more time to throw, he could have had himself a night. He completed his first 8 passes and looked sharp before he had to start running for his life. Buchner was running because of the offensive line’s play too, not because he was taking off and running too early as young, mobile quarterbacks tend to do.
Buchner couldn’t get much going on the ground, but again, there wasn’t much room for him to run either.
The defense held an explosive offense in check
Ohio State has a Heisman candidate at quarterback, a future 1st round pick at running back, and perhaps the best wide receiving corps in the country. And they scored 21 points on Notre Dame’s defense. Had you told any Notre Dame fan before the game that the Irish would hold the Buckeyes to 21 points, they would have said Notre Dame would win the game.
There are areas of concern for the defense coming out of this game, such as the defensive line being unable to generate any pressure with the front four. Still, if Notre Dame can hold Ohio State to 21, they are going to hold the majority of teams on this schedule under 20, which is going to give the Irish a chance to win out potentially.
Al Golden had a good game plan and called a good game other than that ill-fated double safety blitz that resulted in an Ohio State touchdown. There is still room to improve for a defense that held one of the most explosive offenses in the country in check for most of the night.
Jon Sot overcame early struggles to have a strong debut
Jon Sot’s first punt in a Notre Dame uniform went for 33 yards. His second wasn’t much better. It measured 40 yards thanks to a friendly roll, but neither of his first two punts traveled very far in the air. It looked like maybe Notre Dame was going to need a new punter. Then Sot transformed mid-game and turned things around completely. His next X punts went for 48, 52, 49, 35, 42, 35, and 79 yards. He did have one other punt that went for 29 yards, but that came from the OSU 35-yard line.
I can’t recall a play having as much of an in-game transformation as Sot in a while for Notre Dame. If Sot can be the punter getting 40+ yards with regularity for Notre Dame this season, the Irish will be fine in this department.
A three and out to start the 2nd half for Ohio State
Getting a little more detailed on this one, but the three-and-out coming out of the half for Notre Dame should have been huge for the Irish. Instead, Notre Dame couldn’t capitalize on it. Still, getting the three and out was enormous for the Irish.
With just a three-point lead, we’ve seen the story before of an opponent coming out of the half and marching down the field. Instead, Notre Dame forced a three and out after they spent most of the first half working out of terrible field position.
Following the three and out, Notre Dame got the ball at their own 29-yard line but could have had better field position had the Irish not fair caught the Buckeye punt. Even still, starting at the 29 was a luxury relative to Notre Dame’s starting field position for most of the night. This was a point in the game when Notre Dame had an opportunity to extend their lead but could not. Had the Irish put up any points here, who knows how differently things work out?