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The Start of the Freeman Era – Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

With all the extraordinary changes shaking up the landscape of college football this offseason, from coaching moves to conference realignment, one thing remains constant – come early September, it’s time for the season to kickoff.  A daunting task looms in front of the Irish this season as first-time head coach Marcus Freeman, first-time starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, and the rest of the Notre Dame squad head to Columbus, Ohio to take on the second ranked Buckeyes.  A top five primetime showdown to start the year…talk about getting the blood flowing right off the bat! 

The spread for this game continues to grow larger, and at the time of writing this, it has jumped up to 17.5 points in favor of Ohio State.  No matter where you look, it seems as though everyone (except the die-hard Notre Dame fans) have already written this off as being another blowout.  Is Ohio State an extremely talented team?  Absolutely.  Does that mean that the Irish don’t stand a chance in this game?  I don’t think so, and I will tell you why.

From reports coming out of Notre Dame’s fall camp, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has not only demonstrated his leadership ability, but his elite playmaking skills as well.  Obviously, Buchner’s performance will dictate a lot about how far the Irish will go this season, but behind a more experienced offensive line that has taken on the identity of Coach Harry Hiestand, I expect Buchner to have more time in the pocket than what we all saw last year with Jack Coan.  Buchner provides a more dynamic quarterback option for the Irish, being able to make plays down the field with his arm, while adding in a running element with his legs.  Buchner’s capability to get the ball into the hands of Notre Dame playmakers will not only be imperative for the Ohio State matchup, but for all 12 games on the Irish’s regular season schedule this year. 

In the backfield, the three headed monster of Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs, and Audric Estime all provide unique elements in Notre Dame’s ground attack this year.  Tyree being the speedster, Estime being the power, and Diggs being a combination of both, I think that all three will contribute in different but meaningful ways.  As mentioned, under the coaching of Hiestand, I expect the Irish offensive line to provide more of a push up front, providing Buchner with more time in the pocket and the running backs better lanes to accumulate yards on the ground.  Coach Freeman preached the importance of being able to establish the run against the Buckeyes, so a solid performance out of the backfield would go a long way in increasing Notre Dame’s ability to come out of game one with a win.

Through the air, arguably the number one tight end in college football, Michael Mayer should expect to see another productive season with great numbers.  In this opening matchup against the Buckeyes, I fully expect him to receive a lot of attention from the defense, drawing double teams or forcing shaded coverage to his side of the field.  That should help to free up, or at least provide better matchups for the Notre Dame wideouts going up against the Buckeye secondary.  Lorenzo Styles, Braden Lenzy, Jayden Thomas, and the rest of the Irish receives will need to capitalize on this.  Only in his second year, Styles will likely need to step up to claim the number one receiver position, which is something that I have the upmost amount of confidence in.  He’s a natural born playmaker that is only starting to scratch the surface of his incredible amount of talent.  Braden Lenzy has looked like a man on a mission this off-season, fully embracing the coaching from Notre Dame’s new wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey.  Jayden Thomas, entering his redshirt freshman season, has continued to garner more praise from the Irish coaching staff and although not listed on the two-deep for the Ohio State matchup, I expect true freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather to play a pivotal role throughout 2022 as well.  The somewhat unproven nature of this group remains to be one of the biggest question marks and causes for concern heading to Columbus, but if the receivers can play up to their abilities, this question mark could end up being one of the biggest strengths for Notre Dame this season.

Looking at the defensive side of the ball for the Irish, there is a lot more proven production and veteran players.  Saturday will be a strength-on-strength battle between the Buckeyes’ offense and the Irish defense.  Led by the front four of Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross III, and Rylie Mills, I am a big fan of the Irish defense this year.  The depth of playmakers across the defensive line paired with the athleticism, length, and speed of linebackers is not something to be overlooked.  Yes, Foskey will draw a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines, similar to what is expected on the other side of the ball with Michael Mayer, but this leaves some great opportunities for the Ademilolas and the rest of the defensive front to cause some major disruptions.  Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Jack Kiser have been named the starting linebackers for game one – returning production from Bertrand and Kiser and Liufau looks to sure up the will position.  In the secondary, All-American safety Brandon Joseph and senior safety DJ Brown, along with Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis, TaRiq Bracy, and Jaden Mickey at the corner position, will have their hands full going up against the high-powered Buckeyes offense.  Throughout the year, I expect Joseph and Hart to be major factors in Notre Dame’s success, but I am very excited to see the impact that freshman Jaden Mickey can provide.  Speaking of freshmen, another name to keep an eye out for throughout this year is linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka.  The charisma and athleticism that these two bring will undoubtedly be fun to watch, both this year and in seasons to come.

Taking a look at the Irish opponent for week one, the Buckeyes are led by 4th year head coach Ryan Day who has only lost a total of four games while coaching Ohio State.  On the field, the Buckeyes are led by pre-season Heisman favorite, CJ Stroud, at quarterback.  Stroud, a junior from California finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in total yards, third in touchdowns, and first in QBR – very impressive numbers to say the least.  Stroud’s main target on the outside is Rockwell, Texas native Jaxon Smith-Njigba.  Smith-Njigba is a speedy playmaker who finished last season averaging just under 17 yards per catch, an almost sure-fire NFL draft pick.  The Notre Dame defensive backs will certainly need to contain the Buckeye weapons, but I believe that the containment starts up front.  If Notre Dame’s defensive line can put continual pressure on Stroud, forcing him into quicker decisions and maybe even turnovers, the Irish should fare well.  Two turnovers forced by the Irish defense, and I think Notre Dame is sitting pretty (granted, ND can’t turn the ball over more than that).  The key word when the Ohio State offense is on the field is containment.  Contain the playmakers and contain the offense as a whole.  We have all seen the pre-season accolades talking about how much of a high-powered offense this is, and they will undoubtedly score points.  But, if Notre Dame can limit some of the Buckeye drives to end in no points or field goals rather than touchdowns, the 17.5-point spread could look a lot more enticing for Irish fans. 

A familiar face is heading up the Buckeye defense this year, former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.  Knowles’ defensive adjustments during last years Fiesta Bowl was able to hold the Irish offense to just 7 points in the second half; yes, under much different circumstances this time around – Knowles coaching a different team and Freeman having a full off-season to prepare for a game rather than just a few weeks.  Knowles typically likes to run a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, but with this being his first off-season working with the Buckeye athletes, it is hard to predict exactly what that will look like.  At his previous stops at Duke and Oklahoma State, the complexity of his defensive schemes has taken a few weeks to iron its kinks out – making a Jim Knowles led defense most susceptible in its earlier games.  We will see if this remains the case at Ohio State and if this is something that the Irish offense can take advantage of. 

Notre Dame has the talent on the roster to play with Ohio State, it will come down to how well they can execute on both sides of the ball that will ultimately determine the outcome of Saturday’s matchup.  Under a new coaching regime, it is very hard to know what to expect when walking in to the first game of the season, let alone the first game being a top-5 showdown.  We will see how good of an in-game head coach Marcus Freeman is and how well this reconstructed coaching staff has this Notre Dame team prepared.  Freeman and the staff have created a lot of positive momentum on the recruiting trail, and I have one ask for Notre Dame fans no matter what the outcome of Saturday’s game ends up being…do not overreact.  Don’t overreact to a loss and say, “the sky is falling”, “Freeman was the wrong hire”, “same old Notre Dame”, etc.  Going up against one of the pre-season National Champion favorites, on the road, at night, with a first-year head coach and first-year starting quarterback is not an easy task for any team out there.  And no, I’m not trying to make excuses, I am simply pointing out facts.  If the Irish can pull off the upset, don’t overreact in the other direction either.  “Notre Dame is going 12-0”, “the rest of the season is going to be a cake walk”, “we want Bama”, etc.  Will this be a massive win (and maybe the biggest Notre Dame win of my lifetime)?  You know it.  But if I ask you not to overreact to a loss, it is only right that we as a fanbase not overreact to a win either.

With all that being said, it’s the first game of the Freeman Era…you think that in my blue and gold bleeding heart, I’m going to pick against the Irish?  Come on now…31-27 Notre Dame. This happens because Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees calls a great game that helps play to the strengths of Buchner while the Irish defense creates 1-2 turnovers and limits 2 Buckeye drives to field goals rather than touchdowns. It’s a big ask, but there’s no time like the start of the Freeman Era.  Go Irish.  Beat Buckeyes.

Notre Dame injuries of note: Jarrett Patterson (Offensive Line – questionable), Avery Davis (Wide Receiver – out for season)