After a somewhat challenging win on Saturday, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish face their most pivotal battle of the 2023 regular season. The Irish welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes who, like Marcus Freeman’s squad, have their eyes focused on a possible national championship with this matchup crucial to both team’s hopes.
Ohio State hasn’t really been challenged in their first three contests. In their opener, the Indiana Hoosiers did offer a competitive battle for the first half before the Buckeyes pulled away for the 23-3 victory. This Saturday’s clash between two iconic schools marks only the sixth regular season matchup between them and only the third visit to the Golden Dome by the Buckeyes.
Below are a few of the key matchups to watch for on Saturday:
QB Sam Hartman vs. Ohio State Defense
In the final three games of last season, Ohio State’s defense was shredded for an average of 39 points per game, which resulted in a new focus that included fewer blitzes. Even without the changes, the Buckeyes do possess a wealth of talent on the defensive side and have only given up 20 points in three contests. Of course, they now face a Notre Dame unit that’s thriving on the ground and in the air.
Against a trio of lesser opponents, the Buckeyes’ defense has played according to form. Saturday’s effort in the 63-10 rout of Western Kentucky put forth Ohio State’s best performance with respect to forcing turnovers, with two interceptions and two fumbles to their credit. Getting to Hartman is a major necessity, but the Ohio State defenders can’t sleep on the depth of the Irish running game either.
QB Kyle McCord vs. Notre Dame Defense
McCord has had the challenging task of trying to replace C.J. Stroud, who was the second overall pick in April’s NFL draft. He hasn’t tried to be as prolific as Stroud but he did struggle against Indiana, with one pick and no touchdown passes. He then tossed three scores against Youngstown State and three more against Western Kentucky. He’s not much of a runner, but the Irish pass rush needs to thrive in this game.
Notre Dame has made 17 stops behind the line and has six sacks to its credit in 2023. However, against Central Michigan, it fell victim to some big plays that kept the Chippewas in the game, with the nagging problem of penalties also surfacing again. McCord has an array of weapons at his disposal, which gives the Irish defense little room for error to help bring home a victory.
CB Benjamin Morrison vs. WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
In just his second year, Morrison is a leader in the secondary and has shown no indication yet of a sophomore jinx. Last year, his first collegiate game took place against these same Buckeyes, the first step toward an outstanding freshman season. His battle on Saturday night will be closely watched and could help him down the road when the NFL comes calling.
As the son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame wideout, the younger Harrison is giving every indication that he’ll also have a big professional career. He had 77 catches last year and already has 14 in 2023. The scariest part of the Buckeyes’ receiving corps is that even if Harrison is covered, McCord can try his other standout receivers, Emeka Egbuka or Julian Fleming, the latter of whom has 11 grabs after an injury-plagued career had held him back.
MLB Tommy Eichenberg vs. RB Audric Estime
Estime continues to be the focal point of the Notre Dame running game and has managed to turn the long touchdown into almost a weekly feature. One of the ubiquitous penalties on Saturday took away a 72-yard scoring dash for him. Yet, even when he’s not racing to the end zone, he’s still a handful to simply bring down.
Eichelberg’s brother, Liam, is a former standout Irish offensive lineman, though the younger edition is also getting noticed. He first started to emerge during the latter part of the 2021 campaign, then led the Buckeyes in tackles last season. He’s quick enough to get behind the line to make stops and has also managed to collect an interception during each of the past two years.
G Rocco Spindler vs. DT Tyleik Williams
Spindler is in his first season as a starter on the Irish front line and has his biggest challenge yet in helping to keep Hartman upright during the game. Thus far, the only hiccup on that front has come against North Carolina State. That otherwise solid protection has been a key component in helping the quarterback flourish.
Despite his 300-pound size, Williams is quick off the ball and knows how to put pressure on the quarterback. During his first two seasons, he collected seven sacks and delivered 19 quarterback hurries, something that should concern Notre Dame’s offense, given the protection issues against North Carolina State.