The first of three big-time games for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is upon us. Quick, someone tell Michigan you can schedule tough games in the regular season. The 6th-ranked Buckeyes roll into town along with ESPN College Gameday for a top-10 matchup. Notre Dame has not had the best of luck in these games in recent years, but the Irish haven’t had an offense quite like the one they’ll unleash on the Buckeyes tomorrow in years, either. Can the Irish pull off the upset?
What Worries Me This Week
Interior of Notre Dame OL. The inside of Notre Dame’s offensive line hasn’t been great this year yet, with two new starting guards. It’s been a process so far with Rocco Spindler and Pat Coogan. They’ve had their moments, but they’ve also struggled at times. Ohio State isn’t necessarily a scary defense, but they are very good and will test the Irish offensive line – specifically Coogan and Spindler.
To win this game, Notre Dame must run the ball better than they did a year ago when the Buckeyes shut down the Irish ground attack. Having an elite quarterback this year should make it easier to run since the Buckeyes did not have to respect the passing of Tyler Buchner. They have to respect Sam Hartman. Still, it could be tough sledding early on for Notre Dame on the ground.
Too much red in the stands. Why do all of these big-time games have to be against teams who wear red? As a color, it just pops in the stands and on TV so well that even if there isn’t a Georgia or Nebraska-style takeover, the red still stands out. I know Notre Dame has implemented some policies to limit how much red we see in the stands, but it’s impossible to control the secondary ticket market. It’ll be upsetting if there’s a lot of red in the stands tomorrow.
One big difference between this game and the Georgia game is Notre Dame was coming off a 4-8 record in 2016, and interest in the program was low. That’s not the case this year, with the Irish in the top 10 and riding some good momentum with Marcus Freeman leading the Irish to a 13-2 mark in his last 15 games after last year’s rough start.
What to Watch For
Notre Dame’s pass rush. Just like Notre Dame has to run the ball to win, they need to pressure Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord. This is McCord’s first career start on the road, and thus far, he has not been tested during his brief time as the starter for the Buckeyes. Notre Dame has to put pressure on him and force some mistakes.
So far this year, the Irish pass rush has graded well in some advanced analytics but hasn’t gotten home much at all. That has to change on Saturday night. The Irish have just 6.0 sacks in four games.
There have been some games in recent years where the Irish defensive line has risen to the occasion. I’m specifically thinking about the 2014 Florida State and the 2018 Stanford games. The entire line played possessed against the Seminoles that night, but Jarron Jones specifically played out of his mind. In that Stanford game, it was Jerry Tillery who had a monster game. Can Someone on the Irish defensive line do the same against the Buckeyes.
Designed plays for Chris Tyree. The transition of Chris Tyree to wide receiver has been a success so far this year. In limited snaps, Tyree has just 8 receptions, but they’ve covered 216 yards and two went for touchdowns. He’s had a 20-yard reception in every game. It still hasn’t felt like there have been many designed plays for him.
With his speed and athleticism, I’m looking for Notre Dame to show some new wrinkles in the offense with Tyree on Saturday night. That could be some jet sweeps, some new bubble screens, designed crossers. Something.
Sam Hartman under pressure. Ohio State isn’t going to sit back and dare Hartman to beat them. They are going to put pressure on him. When kept clean, Hartman has a 91.3 rating. When pressured, that drops to 42.4. He’s been pressured on 22 dropbacks. His completion percentage on those is just 50% compared to a 73.7% rate when kept clean. He still has 2 TDs to 0 INTs when pressured, but Ohio State isn’t going to sit back and let him have time.
Just like with the running game, the interior of the line will have to hold up for Notre Dame to keep Hartman clean. The backs will also have to do a better job in pass protection, as all of the Irish backs have struggled in that department.
Players to Watch
- Javontae Jean-Baptiste – Notre Dame needs a DL to step up, and who better than the Ohio State transfer?
- Cam Hart – All eyes will be on the Benjamin Morrison – Marvin Harrison Jr. matchup, but that could mean more opportunities for Cam Hart.
- Jaden Greathouse – He’s been quiet the last couple of weeks. It feels like it’s about time for another big game from the freshman.
- Marist Liufau – After being one of the highest-graded linebackers in all of college football through the first three games, he had a rough outing last week. Look for a bounce back.
- Holden Staes – With Mitchell Evans back, Staes won’t have to block as much this week and could build on his breakout performance against NC State.
- Blake Fisher – He’s been OK this year, but Notre Dame needs him to be great on Saturday night.
- Howard Cross – He had a great game against Ohio State last year and has been Notre Dame’s most steady DL this year.
I’ve waffled on this all week long. In this week’s podcast, I said this was not one of those big games where I go into thinking that Notre Dame needs to be absolutely perfect to win all the 2020 ‘Bama playoff game. This isn’t that. Ohio State is very, very good, but they aren’t unbeatable, and this isn’t the same Notre Dame team from the last few years because the Irish finally have an elite quarterback in Sam Hartman. I think we will be in for a great one on Saturday night, with Hartman getting the Irish on the board early and then Audric Estime churning out yards on the ground in the end.
Notre Dame 31, Ohio State 27