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Column: What’s the No. 1 concern as the Buckeyes take on the Irish?

Forget about the Ohio State defense. It’s the Notre Dame defense — especially the line — that troubles me.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I’m not going to make a formal prediction for this game. There’s too much on the line, I’m not dispassionate enough and the big point spread makes me nervous. I can see the contest going in several different ways.

Here’s what I want to happen and, in fact, what I think will happen. OSU will score touchdowns on four of its six offensive possessions in the first half and take a 28-7 lead into the locker room. The Irish won’t have any answers for C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TreVeyon Henderson, and the Buckeyes will win going away — a win that should shorten the voters’ gap between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Ohio State and set the tone for a great season.

2021 Patterns

I would sort Ohio State games last year into three categories: Buckeye routs, shootouts, and struggles. I count six “romps” among the 13 games – Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State. The Tulsa game is questionable, perhaps. The Bucks didn’t play very well.

The three shootouts were fun to watch, but were also nail-biting. I wasn’t really worried in the 59-31 win over Purdue, but beating Minnesota by only 14, 45-31, was troubling. And the 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah was really something.

The nation’s top scoring offense fell short of scoring 30 points only three times in 2021. These games turned out to be struggles, and two of them were losses: 42-27 to Michigan and 35-28 to Oregon. The third game was a 26-17 win over Nebraska — a tough game, a struggle. I would also consider the Penn State game, which the Buckeyes won 33-24, as a struggle.

What did these four games have in common? Several things. The opponents’ defenses could actually hold the Buckeye offense in check, at least somewhat. I never felt that the Bucks were going to score TDs on every possession in these games. Secondly, these teams could run the ball against the Buckeyes, use time, and keep Stroud and company off the field. As the games stayed close, the opponents’ confidence grew.

Notre Dame, 2022

So, which scenario will the Sept. 3 game against the Irish follow? Because the Buckeye defense will be appreciably better and because I don’t think that the Irish will be able to mount an explosive passing attack, the shootout is the least likely game pattern. The other two are possibilities.

It could easily be a rout. The Bucks bring a lot of firepower and speed into the game. They have experienced players, All-Americans, actually, in skill positions that can overwhelm individual players and shatter defensive schemes. As I said in my opening paragraph, I think that it will happen.

But what if it’s a struggle?

The Irish D

If Notre Dame makes this game a struggle, it will be the play of the Irish defense. They have to hold OSU to below that 30-point threshold. Coach Marcus Freeman, a defensive guy, will be watching that Michigan tape over and over to see how that can be done. Michigan did it with line play, line play that stopped the Ohio State running game and pressured Stroud, making him more than uncomfortable.

Ohio State gave up only 17 sacks in 13 games last year. Very good. But three of them were to the Wolverines’ Aidan Hutchinson, who was all over Stroud last year. No, he didn’t transfer to South Bend; he’s safely in the NFL. But Irish edge player Isaiah Foskey is on all of the All-America teams, either on the first or the second team. At 6-foot-6, 260, he’ll be plenty for the OSU tackles to handle, even though both Paris Johnson, Jr. and Dawand Jones are on preseason All-American teams too.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame
Foskey gets the sack in the Fiesta Bowl
Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isaiah Foskey

Coming out of high school in the class of 2019, Foskey had offers from not only Notre Dame but also Ohio State, Alabama, Penn State, Clemson, etc. 247Sports identifies him as a four-star recruit who ranked 233rd nationally (composite ranking) and 13th at his position. As many of these elite athletes do, Foskey played both ways in high school, lining up at tight end on offense. His high school size was listed as 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, so he’s done some growing at Notre Dame.

Foskey didn’t arrive on campus until the summer of 2019 and redshirted that season. The following year, he rotated at the defensive end position for the Irish and recorded 20 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Last year he had a genuine breakout year, increasing his tackles to 52 and his sacks to 11. Maybe the most impressive fact from 2021 was that Foskey forced six fumbles and recovered two of them. Remember Chase Young in 2019?

Foskey’s 2021 performance earned him national recognition, including making several All-America teams. From what I’ve read, NFL scouts rank Foskey just below Alabama’s edge rusher, Will Anderson. Nice company to keep.

I’m worried that Foskey will play like Hutchinson did last year, and that a monster game from him will disrupt the Buckeye offense. I take a little solace in the fact that Foskey’s sack production tailed off toward the end of last year. He had one sack and five tackles in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. Pretty good. But in his four November games (Stanford, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Navy) combined, Foskey had only one sack and eight total tackles. On the other hand, those were all lopsided Irish wins, and Foskey probably spent much of the time watching.

The struggle

If Foskey (and Brandon Joseph, another preseason Irish All-American, at safety) and his teammates can check the Buckeye offense, then the game could come down to how well the OSU defense plays. In last year’s struggles, the defense didn’t do well against Oregon or Michigan, and Ohio State lost. It played better against Penn State and Nebraska (weaker teams, granted), and the Bucks won.

As I said, I think that the defense will be better this year and that Notre Dame isn’t capable of a shootout. Struggle or not, if the Buckeyes score 30, they win.