If you had trouble both falling asleep last night and getting out of bed this morning, that makes two and probably many more of us. Given a golden opportunity to grab a season-defining, program-redefining win at home, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish instead snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Ohio State Buckeyes. To speak to this feeling of fleeting ecstasy turned to heartbreak, I give you your Irish tune of the week:
Does the fact the Irish were entirely capable of winning this game and threw it away make it more or less depressing than previous losses in top-10 matchups where they were simply outclassed? I leave that to your judgment. There will be more games and more opportunities for this team to prove itself worthy of playoff consideration; let’s talk about three things we saw that we might, or might not, hope to see again.
Ball Control Backfires
Much of the commentary on how the Irish lost this game has centered on plays and coaching decisions from the final two minutes and don’t worry, we’ll get to those. But the table for Notre Dame’s eventual demise was set in the first half by a pair of long drives that saw the Irish rack up a ton of yards, chew up over ten minutes of clock getting into scoring position...and come away with zero points thanks to a turnover on downs in the red zone and a missed field goal.
While it was undoubtedly meant to limit the opportunities for Ohio State’s receivers to make plays, this strategy also had the effect of limiting Notre Dame’s opportunities to score - neutralizing their big-play potential as well as the Buckeyes’. This would have been fine had the Irish succeeded in the few chances they had, but questionable playcalling and missing execution left the Irish with two goose-egg drives at the start of the game. It was that start that put the Irish in a position where they had to come from multiple possessions behind in the second half and defend a tenuous lead in the final minutes.
Beyond the obvious observations from those possessions - yes, the Irish should have run the ball on 4th and 1 and yes, one would hope to be able to count on a senior kicker with a big leg to make a long-but-far-from-unprecedented field goal in a tie game - it is also worth asking whether the Irish would have been better served by an offensive gameplan that took more chances in the passing game and gave more targets to the receivers (Mitchell Evans nearly had more receptions than the entire group), even if it meant stopping the clock more often. Given what we had seen so far this season from Sam Hartman and the Irish wideouts, it was not at all clear that the Irish had to fear a more offensively-oriented game script. Hartman was brought in to make big plays happen; it’s strange that the Irish largely didn’t plan for him to do so.
I do want to make sure that I don’t leave this article without a positive note, as this game was in many respects a tremendous effort by the Irish. The biggest thing to commend from this team on both sides of the ball was the way it continued to punch back and never quit even as the aforementioned game script didn’t play out in its favor. Many previous Irish teams that fell behind by two possesions in the second and third quarters would have given in when TraVeyon Henderson’s long touchdown run gave the Buckeyes a seemingly commanding lead. Few in recent memory would have stood tall and denied the Buckeyes on fourth and short at the goal line, and in the red zone late in the fourth quarter.
So don’t hesitate. You can absolutely commend Sam Hartman’s leadership in this game as he led the Irish on two consecutive scoring drives; the unfazed poise of freshmen contributors like Rico Flores, Jeremiyah Love and Jaylen Sneed; the moxie of Benjamin Morrison and the Irish secondary in limiting Ohio State’s receivers; the grit of the Irish in the trenches on both sides of the ball for most of the game. In all of these areas we saw the Irish act the part of a championship team for 58 minutes; unfortunately, they were outcoached and out-executed when it mattered most.
They Are Who We Thought They Were
The Ohio State Buckeyes are who we thought they were, and we let ‘em off the hook. Most of us here at OFD picked the Irish to win this game because we saw Ohio State’s vulnerabilities. All of those presented themselves in this game, and even despite their early misfires the Irish still found themselves in a position to walk away with a victory as the game wound down. And then...we let ‘em off the hook. And I say we, because in the the fashion of Murder on the Orient Express, the killing of this W was a crime in which everyone was guilty.
Where to begin? You can certainly start with Gerad Parker and his playcalling on Notre Dame’s final offensive possession, specifically by questioning the wisdom of doing anything other than handing the ball to Audric Estime in a situation where you are trying to run out the clock and have an Audric Estime. And yet the ill-fated screen pass he called instead would have worked, had the offensive line not suddenly forgotten how to block. You can then look to Al Golden and his playcalling on Ohio State’s final drive, particularly the lack of pressure applied to Kyle McCord on key downs that could have ended the game, as an enabling factor that helped the young quarterback make key completions throughout that drive. And yet that defensive scheme also put DJ Brown in position to make an interception that would have sealed the game and his own legend before the sixth-year senior allowed both to slip through his fingers. And then, yes - you can absolutely look to the fact that Marcus Freeman inexplicably allowed Notre Dame to come out of a timeout without the requisite number of players and then refused to fix the problem when he became aware of it, creating the very hole that the Buckeyes exploited on a run that still barely made it into the end zone.
In other words - it was the coaching and the execution and probably you and me too, somehow. Everyone did it.