Last year, Notre Dame entered its top-five clash with Ohio State as decided underdogs. The Irish were 17-point underdogs on the road with a head coach possessing the experience of one game, which was still more experience than his quarterback had as a starter. Though the Irish put up a good fight, the Buckeyes were clearly the superior team.
Things are different this time around. Ohio State is still favored, but only by about a field goal. Notre Dame’s head coach has learned from his mistakes and successes. The Irish possess one of the country’s most experienced signal callers. Oh, and this year, they’re bringing the party to South Bend.
It will certainly feel like a party all morning and afternoon Saturday as the atmosphere of College Gameday heightens the tension of two top-10 blue bloods about to square off. Though they’ve tried to prepare otherwise, this is the moment the Irish have been waiting for, a chance to author a new reputation for the Freeman Era and erase the negative stereotypes surrounding a program that’s struggled to win "The Big One" for decades. Here’s what the Irish need to do to take their best shot.
Give Hartman the support he needsThere is little worry that graduate student Sam Hartman won’t meet the moment. He has been the quarterback Notre Dame has been waiting for since the days of Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn. The Irish didn’t have a roster capable of succeeding in big games for most of those tenures, though. That’s different this time around.
Still, it’s one thing to have the talent to win big games — winning them is another thing entirely. The performance of junior guards Pat Coogan and Rocco Spindler needs to improve against a talented Ohio State pass rush, albeit one that’s dealing with a similar problem as Notre Dame’s (more on that in a little bit). The wide receiver room has delivered when called upon, but that hasn’t been all that often this year.
Hartman and the suspect secondaries have mostly been enough to facilitate a quality aerial attack on their own in the first four games. That won’t be the same against a talented Buckeye secondary that includes one of the nation’s top corners in Denzel Burke. Junior running back Audric Estime has a similar level of confidence from the fanbase as Hartman. But the rest of Notre Dame’s primary ball carriers are all underclassmen. A big play from them would be nice, but being clean in pass blocking and keeping the ball off the ground may be even more meaningful for them.
Turn pressure into pointsIt doesn’t have to be as dramatic as last year’s Clemson game when the Irish defense and special teams matched Clemson’s point total on their own. And the opportunities have been there for the Irish this season. Al Golden’s defense has generated 23 quarterback hurries and forced seven fumbles. But it’s only turned that into six actual sacks and hasn’t recovered a fumble yet.
It’s not that the Irish haven’t made big plays — the Irish are tied for 11th in the country with five interceptions, three of which came against their lone Power Five opponent thus far. Making Kyle McCord sweat and putting the Buckeyes behind the chains is valuable on its own. But since 2020, Notre Dame is 2-1 against top-10 opponents when it wins the turnover battle and 0-5 when it doesn’t. That feels like a trend that’s likely to continue Saturday, one way or the other.
Ohio State has reasons to feel confident on offense. Even though Notre Dame’s secondary has been stout, it can’t expect to fully contain the dynamic duo of Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. The Irish don’t have much depth at linebacker, and that’s even with accounting for graduate student JD Bertrand’s anticipated return from a concussion. While selling out for another double safety blitz is probably ill-advised, finding smart ways to give Ohio State as little time to exploit those advantages as possible should be a priority.
Remind everyone who’s Tight End U
Arguably no position’s production has fluctuated more in our weekly grades articles than tight end. The unit produced next to nothing against Navy, totaled 12 catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns the next two weeks, then went back behind the curtain last week. In fairness, the Irish didn’t have junior Mitchell Evans due to concussion (like Bertrand, the Irish expect him back Saturday).
Last year, the Irish held an undisputed edge at the position with perennial All-American Michael Mayer leading the way. Sure enough, Mayer wound up accounting for half of Notre Dame’s receptions and nearly 20% of its receiving yards. Evans, sophomore Holden Staes and junior Davis Sherwood likely won’t have that type of impact on Saturday. But the Irish need them to play a key role. It doesn’t necessarily have to be catching passes. Whether it’s during up-the-pass blocking or showing off Mitch-A-Palooza in prime time, this group has the potential to make a difference.
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