It’s crazy to think about considering how long we’ve been waiting and yet also how quickly time has flown since the Fiesta Bowl, but the regular season debut for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish under head coach Marcus Freeman is finally upon us!!!!!!
Considering Freeman’s debut as head honcho against the Oklahoma State Cowboys that started off perfectly and ended quite painfully, Irish fans have been chomping at the bit to move forward and see what Freeman and his new and hopefully improved staff can do with a lot more time to make changes and prepare their squad for the season.
Unfortunately for both ND fans and Freeman, the season opener is no cupcake or even a decent-but-extremely-beatable opponent. Instead, the #5 Irish will travel to Columbus to take on the #2 team in the AP Preseason Poll and Freeman’s alma mater, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
OSU and Notre Dame have only ever played 6 times, with recent history not being so kind to our Irish. The last two meetings, the Buckeyes won convincingly over Brian Kelly’s 2015 team in the Fiesta Bowl and Charlie Weis’s 2005 team in the same bowl game. Prior to those double-digit Fiesta Bowl wins, Ohio State defeated Lou Holtz’s final two teams in 1995 and 1996. None of the four games were within 12 or fewer points in terms of final margin, and Notre Dame’s only two wins against the team that calls “The Horeseshoe” home came way back in 1935 and 1936, with Elmer Layden coaching the Irish at the time and Ohio Stadium less than 15 years old.
So, considering both the history of this match-up and how Ohio State has unquestionably been on a different and higher-performing level compared to ND over the last ~20 years — along with the now 17.5-point spread in favor of the Buckeyes — Irish fans have gotta at least be asking if all of this is hype and hyperbole and ND will be able to go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes, or whether it’s too early in the #FreemanEra for anything but another tough blowout to a superior team in this series between two of the winningest programs in the nation.
Luckily for all of you, we don’t have to sit and blindly wonder what we need to know about the opponent to prepare ourselves for Saturday evening and which of those scenarios is more likely. Instead, we reached out to Matt Tamanini, Managing Editor over at Land-Grant Holy Land, SB Nation’s Ohio State site.
Matt was incredibly gracious — he thoroughly and thoughtfully answered a substantial number of questions from us that ranged from serious inquiries about this Buckeyes team and their coaching staff all the way to some more...off-the-wall questions submitted by our loyal Twitter followers.
So, instead of rambling any longer, let’s dive into the reason you came here this morning. It’s time to arm ourselves with lots of knowledge about this marquee opponent and understand what to expect heading into this weekend’s biggest game!
1. Let’s start with the head honcho — what are your thoughts on Ryan Day as head coach after 3+ years at the helm, especially following in the footsteps of someone as accomplished (but morally questionable) as Urban Meyer? Do you think it’s only a matter of time until he brings a title to Columbus, considering his 34-4 start and how strong the Buckeye recruiting machine has become?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I am very happy with Ryan Day as the head coach of the Buckeyes. So far, he has shown himself to be exactly the kind of individual that I was hoping he would be coming in on the heels of Urban Meyer’s tenure. Day has proven to be an individual of exceptionally high character, is willing to look in the mirror and self-evaluate, and doesn’t solely hire his friends, sons-in-law, and best men from his wedding; all improvements over the last guy, imo.
In terms of winning a national championship, that is certainly the expectation, and given the amount of talent that he and his staff have accumulated on this roster, it absolutely should be the goal every year. But in a world in which Nick Saban still coaches college football (dude is never going to retire), I think putting any sort of guarantee or timeline on taking home a title is a little foolish.
Do I think that Day can eventually win a title? Of course. Do I think that he should eventually win a title? Probably. Do I think that he will eventually win a title? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
2. The Buckeyes offense looks incredibly scary yet again, with multiple Heisman favorites in the starting lineup. Talk me through what makes each of C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TreVeyon Henderson so special, and which of the three do you expect to have the greatest impact on this season opener vs. Notre Dame?
Land-Grant Holy Land: Stroud had an interesting first season as OSU’s starter. A few games into the year, a certain knuckle-dragging contingent within the Buckeye fandom wanted to see him benched. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (save for taking a week off to let a beaten-up shoulder heal). Throughout the season, it was pretty clear that his decision-making and confidence were growing with each game.
Stroud is obviously an incredibly talented athlete, but I think that his ability to make the proper reads is underappreciated. Granted, when you are throwing to Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, reads aren’t super tough, but he routinely diagnosed plays last year that even guys with far more experience wouldn’t be able to.
JSN is the type of receiver who can do just about anything, and he has in his two years as a Buckeye. He can line up on the outside and go downfield, or he can come out of the slot and catch passes in traffic over the middle. He has an incredible combination of speed and body control that make him pretty near impossible to defend.
In his true freshman season, Henderson showed sparks that reminded me of Ezekiel Elliott, J.K. Dobbins, and Maurice Clarett; he is absolutely that talented. However, he hit a freshman wall about three-quarters of the way through the season and just didn’t have the same burst and elusiveness late in the year. I assume that after another year in the program, he will come into 2022 much tougher than he was last year, which should only make him that much more difficult to contend with in Week 1.
I think that the obvious answer as to who will have the greatest impact is Stroud. He is the quarterback, so by default he will touch the ball most. But given how many offensive weapons the Buckeyes have, if the Notre Dame defense finds a way to limit Smith-Njigba and/or Henderson, there are plenty of other options, and Stroud has proven — at least to me — that he is capable of finding them.
3. Everyone knows the above three guys at this point, but who are the other offensive weapons Irish fans need to look out for this weekend, considering recent mainstays like Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jeremy Ruckert have moved on to the NFL? As a Colts fan, I’m very interested to hear what you expect from Marvin Harrison Jr., especially.
Land-Grant Holy Land: There is a trio of former top wide receiver prospects who will see their roles on the team increase dramatically this year, and Marvin Harrison Jr. is actually the lowest rated of the bunch. Harrison was the No. 97 player nationally in 2021, while Emeka Egbuka was 10th in that cycle. Julian Fleming was the third-ranked prospect in 2020; the latter two were the top-rated wide receivers in their respective classes.
I think that all three of them will factor heavily into the offensive gameplan. OSU’s offensive coaches have said that they have six to seven WRs who can effectively play any position in any combination at any time. However, I figure that Smith-Njigba and these three will get the most time, and based on what we’ve seen from them in limited time last year (including in the Rose Bowl), I think they could all be dangerous.
I would also keep an eye on backup running back Miyan Williams. He was a pretty unheralded guy coming into college, but he has emerged as an important piece of the offense and a bit of a cult-favorite for Buckeye fans. He offers a different, more physical running style than Henderson, so he is a nice complement, but he also has plenty of speed and wiggle to make guys miss as well.
4. How does OSU look in the trenches heading into this game? Do you expect the Buckeye offensive line to be capable of handling ND’s veteran defensive front, and do you think the OSU defensive line will be able to wreak havoc against what should be an improved but still not perfect Irish offensive line?
Land-Grant Holy Land: In terms of personnel, the lines will essentially look the same as they did last season, just a year older and with varying degrees of new coaching to work with. One of the big issues with OSU’s offensive line last season was that former position coach Greg Studrawa thought that it would be a good idea to have an entire starting line — save the center — made up of tackles. In theory, getting your best athletes on the field makes sense, and obviously position changes are often part of linemen’s journey, but the type of player who is best suited to play guard at the collegiate Power 5 level is much different than tackle, and it just didn’t work last year.
Studrawa is no longer on the Ohio State staff and he has been replaced by Justin Frye who has properly reconfigured the line to allow guards to play guard and tackles to play tackle. So, I certainly think that will help. Also, the o-line has spent the past nine months hearing about how they are soft and incapable of winning at the line of scrimmage. Based on their comments during training camp, those storylines really bothered them and they are looking to prove them wrong.
In fairness, in 2021, the Buckeyes had the third-best yards per carry average in the country, and they were generally very good in pass protection; they gave up only 17 sacks all season — good for 14th nationally. However, the issue was the line’s inability to generate enough push in short-yardage situations. Third and short and — heaven forbid — fourth and short were always incredibly fraught situations that either went absolutely horribly, or required Stroud to throw the ball.
The team has not so subtly made it clear that they think this will change in 2022, so we will see.
On the defensive line, it was a similar story. Overall, they were definitely above average; coming in 23rd nationally in PFF’s pressure grade. But it was in those high-pressure running situations that they got pushed around more than Ohio State fans are used to seeing from a defensive line. Coming into Saturday, they are as healthy as they have been in recent memory and, like the o-line, seem to have a lot to prove.
The three primary defensive ends were all top-12 national players when they came to Columbus and, given the more aggressive scheme from new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, a lot is expected of them this year. However, if the Buckeyes want to prevent a repeat of the issues that haunted them against Oregon, Michigan, and Utah last year, it will come down to the defensive tackles: primarily Jerron Cage, Ty Hamilton, Taron Vincent, and Tyleik Williams.
5. Ryan Day brought in Jim Knowles after last season to revamp an Ohio State defense that had a few struggles in key games in 2021. What has he been changing since he arrived and what kind of impact do you expect him to have this season?
Land-Grant Holy Land: Honestly, we don’t really know at this point. The expectation is that he has brought his safety-driven defense to Columbus, and he has essentially acknowledged that, but has declined to get into specifics as to what the Ohio State version of his scheme will look like. As I said before, I would imagine that you will see far more aggression than in the past handful of years when it comes to creative blitzes and pressures; that alone will make me a much happier human. Knowles has also made it clear that the D will be much more multiple than it has been in recent years; meaning that it will adjust its scheme based on situation and opponent, rather than running single-high on every. single. damn. play. of. the. entire. damn. season.
Because of that, I think that you will probably see a more traditional Buckeye defense on Saturday than you will the rest of the season, given Notre Dame’s offensive approach and the threat of Michael Mayer. Kourt Williams has been pegged to play Knowles’ hybrid safety/linebacker role (although the DC hasn’t confirmed the name of the position at Ohio State yet), and at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Williams is probably the right guy to cover the tight end. So while the thought is that eventually Knowles will play with five safeties and two linebackers most of the time, given the Irish’s personnel and presumed offensive game plan, I would think that he would err on having Williams and perhaps the next most physical safety Lathan Ransom up in run support and TE coverage more than he would against other teams.
6. Who are the names to know on the Buckeye defense, and are there any position groups that could be a weakness/weaker group for ND offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to try to attack? Does OSU have a good answer for Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I’ll start with the Mayer question first, since I just mentioned Kourt Williams. I don’t know that any team is going to have a good answer for him this season, but I think that the Buckeyes are happy with Williams in coverage. Obviously, providing him some sort of support would probably be necessary in a lot of situations, but I think that Williams will be able to do enough to at least be annoying to Mayer throughout the game.
In terms of names to know, I don’t think that cornerbacks Denzel Burke, Jordan Hancock, and Cam Brown will be tested too much in the passing game (unless Tyler Buchner really surprises me), so I would first go with the defensive end rotation of Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer, and J.T. Tuimoloau. They put a lot of pressure on opposing QBs last year, but always felt like they were a half-step away from getting the sack. I think that could change with the wrinkles that Knowles is adding into the defense.
Then, I would keep an eye on linebackers Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg. Knowles’ philosophy at Oklahoma State — as you likely remember from the bowl game last season — is to try to jam the middle of the line of scrimmage and funnel running backs to the outside where he allows his LBs to make plays. Chambers is a converted running back who emerged as the best player at the position last season and Eichenberg is a team captain who everyone expects to make a big jump this year.
The Buckeye LBs have been pretty bad the last few seasons, so going with just two in Knowles’ system should give Chambers and Eichenberg a chance to shine, especially against the run.
7. FAN QUESTION: If you could make Ohio Stadium any shape other than a horseshoe, oval, or circle, what shape would you pick?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I’d go with a dodecahedron. You’ve heard of 3D-Chess, I want to see 3D-Football... wait, football’s already in 3D.
8. FAN QUESTION: While the sweets known as Buckeyes are delicious, an actual Buckeye is apparently toxic to eat. If Brutus were eaten, which would he taste like — a real toxic Buckeye, or a delicious chocolate and peanut butter combination?
Land-Grant Holy Land: Fun fact: It’s both! The buckeye nut is poisonous, but not generally strong enough to kill people. However, with the size of Brutus’ head, there is enough poison in there to kill even an above average sized individual. But, his head is so big, who would want to eat enough to ingest enough poison for it to do its job?
So, thanks to the science of human-nut head evolution, over generations, Brutus’ head has developed the sweet taste of peanut butter and chocolate in order to entice unsuspecting victims to continue eating enough for the poison to have its effect.
9. FAN QUESTION: @Brutus_Buckeye is named after the second most infamous traitor in world history. Some suggest he can’t be trusted. Here is a video of Brutus doing a famous Notre Dame dance, the Irish Jig. The entire fanbase does this to support the Irish
Et tu, Brute?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I am angry that you made me watch that, and I am embarrassed by — and for — Brutus.
10. FAN QUESTION: Which current Ohio state QB will be the next to win a CFP and at which school will he win it?
Land-Grant Holy Land: C.J. Stroud at Ohio State.
11. FAN QUESTION: While Ryan Day has an impressive 34-4 HC record with OSU, he has had 2 night game losses. His other 2 losses come at noon, which is morning hangover time…Is there concern that Day man is neither the fighter of the Night man nor a master of karate and friendship for everyone?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I don’t know how to answer that other than to say that he does have sexy hands.
12. Alright, time to get down to it: what’s your prediction for this game? Who wins, what’s the final score, and give your reasoning why.
Land-Grant Holy Land: Your readers aren’t going to like this, but I’m going to pick Ohio State to win, and not in especially close fashion. I tend to start the season fully embracing the scarlet and gray colored glasses through which I see the team, and then get more despondent and disillusioned as the season goes on. So, if this game was in Week 8, you’d probably get a different response. However, I am going to go with 45-20. I reserve the right to change my pick at any time before kickoff, but right now, at 12:05 a.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1, that’s what I’m going with.
I wanna give a huge shout-out to Matt for answering all our questions with immense thoughtfulness, excellent insight, and a sense of humor. I tend to pepper our interviewees with a long list of questions and plenty of nonsense, and so it’s always fantastic and refreshing when folks like Matt still put in the time, effort, and measured consideration to give us a really detailed rundown that truly helps us understand the opposing fans’ perspective on their squad and this week’s match-up.
Be sure you go check out the work of Matt and his team over at the Land-Grant Holy Land site, where they’ve got tons of great Buckeyes coverage and insights to devour heading into the season opener Saturday night.
That’s all for this week — here’s to a wonderful first real Saturday of the football season, and as always...Go Irish, Beat Buckeyes!!!