Game week is finally here for the Ohio State Buckeyes as they finish up preparing for their season opening AP Top 5 match up against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. At the podium this week, Ryan Day and Jim Knowles answered questions about their approach to this game, which starts with physicality.
The confidence from both coaches that the Buckeyes are well prepared is increasing the restlessness Ohio State fans are feeling for game day to arrive. For the Buckeyes though, the plan of attack is becoming clear on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame is a team that prides itself in short yardage situations and in the red zone. This is where it starts for the Buckeyes. This means Ohio State will need to be prepared for a physical battle up front.
Over the last few weeks, we have looked at a few different areas of Notre Dame’s offense and defense. Now it is time to dive into how exactly Ohio State will approach Notre Dame strategically.
Offensive game plan
Notre Dame runs a base 4-2-5 with similar personnel to Ohio State, as well as some of the teams the Buckeyes have faced on their schedule in recent years. By facing similar personnel everyday in practice and playing teams who have run similar coverage concepts the past two seasons, OSU should be prepared to attack the Irish defense.
Taking what the defense is giving
Over the last couple of seasons, Ryan Day has taken unnecessary shots at times, and the mindset carries over to his quarterbacks. The goal of Notre Dame’s defense is to limit big plays and keep the ball in front of them. With that emphasis in mind, throwing the ball downfield comes with some challenges and risk.
In the play below, C.J. Stroud is dropping back against Michigan, who utilizes the Cover-4 Match coverage that Notre Dame uses. The inside receivers for Ohio State run in-breaking routes at two levels. At the bottom, we see how OSU uses a tight end to clear out, giving Chris Olave space to operate underneath the coverage. Olave would have been the best option here, but Jaxon Smith-Njigba is targeted for the completion.
Michigan didn’t give a lot here, but consistently ripping off 10-yard gains is not a bad approach if the defense is focused on preventing big plays.
The next play shows how coming out in an empty look can open up the middle of the field against the formation Notre Dame will be in. The Fighting Irish utilize a hybrid defensive end position named the “Vyper” who is both a linebacker and traditional EDGE. Michigan’s David Ojabo (No. 55) is a stand up outside linebacker, who ends up with coverage responsibility against Ohio State’s best receiver in Smith-Njigba. After the snap, Smith-Njigba runs a short in and is able to turn a quick completion into a nice gain.
Ohio State will need to be patient, and if they keep reeling off plays like this, the defense will get more aggressive and become more likely to make a mistake.
Establishing the run
Last year, teams that established the run against Notre Dame had much greater success in other aspects of their offense. In the Irish’s two losses last season against Cincinnati and Oklahoma State, Notre Dame could not stop the run, which led to them giving up more pass yards as a result. Both Marcus Freeman and Ryan Day emphasized this battle in their press conferences this week, which should add to the importance fans find in this.
In the play below, Ohio State is playing against a similar 4-2-5 front to which they’ll see on Saturday. Establishing the run is not always breaking off long touchdowns, it is well blocked and physical runs like this example from Miyan Williams. Ohio State gets a major push up front, creating a huge lane for Williams. He makes a defender at the second level miss, and this play turns into a big run. The push up front and the shiftiness at the second level is what establishing the run looks like, and from doing that comes big plays.
Pushing the ball down the field
After Ohio State establishes rhythm in the passing game and establishes the run, the next step is attacking down the field. If the Buckeyes can create some easy completions underneath, more space will open at the intermediate level. Once this happens, Ohio State can really start pushing the ball down the field and try to make some big plays.
In the first example, Ohio State just ran the ball for nine yards and had the Oregon defense on its heels. Oregon is in a traditional. Cover-4 look, with their outside linebacker and nickel safety playing wall techniques. The goal of that technique is to push the receiver vertical and funnel him into the safety. Jeremy Ruckert pushes vertical and clears the backer, getting behind him. Stroud is able to make a well-timed throw and delivers a strike to Ruckert downfield.
Not every downfield throw has to be a deep touchdown pass, but Ohio State will need to confidently attack the seam in the intermediate area of the field to make consistent progress down the field against Notre Dame.
In the next play, Ohio State is going against a Cover-4 look again and takes another shot down field. Cover-4 is a two-high safety look, and that means the middle of the field can become vulnerable if the safeties do not communicate. Olave attacks the middle of the field between the safeties and Stroud delivers a strike downfield. This big play was set up with underneath passing routes, and once they got into the red zone they had the defense guessing.
The Buckeyes were able to attack this throughout the game, and if Ohio State can efficiently attack downfield, the offense will have Notre Dame guessing at all three levels.
Defensive game plan
Under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, Ohio State is coming into the season with a lot of confidence on this side of the ball. Knowles brings an aggressive defense that uses disguised coverages to create confusion on the back end. Bringing pressure and mixing coverage types can make offenses become uneasy, leading to mistakes. Going up against a first time starter in a hostile road environment, expect Knowles to bring a versatile set of coverage looks to confuse Notre Dame’s young quarterback.
Get pressure on the quarterback
Looking back at Notre Dame’s matchup against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, we can see how pressure was the leading factor in the second half comeback for Knowles’ former team. In the first play, Oklahoma State brings four with a delayed fifth rusher to along with man-to-man coverage. The Cowboys get immediate pressure with their four man rush, and due to tight coverage from the defensive backs, Notre Dame’s quarterback had no place to go with the football.
Ohio State’s pass rush was not up to the standard last year. This will be an early opportunity for the pass rushing group to show they are here to make some noise in 2022.
With a young quarterback, pressure is the last thing any offense wants. This is why the importance of Ohio State creating pressure can not be over emphasized.
In the play below, Notre Dame is taking on Cincinnati. The initial coverage by the Bearcats takes away any quick reads for Notre Dame’s inexperienced quarterback, Tyler Buchner. Buchner was in for spot-duty here in a change of pace role. In this play, he is given the opportunity to throw and he does not feel the pressure. He steps into contact and ends up making a bad decision, which leads to an interception. Buchner had very few opportunities as a passer last season, so pressure can force a bad read and a mistake.
Win the turnover battle
Notre Dame is not a team that takes a lot of risks on either side of the ball. Offensively, Notre Dame doesn’t take a lot of chances in order to limit turnovers. Defensively, they remain very structured to force opposing offenses into mistakes. In the Fiesta Bowl – once again, Knowles wasn’t coaching – Oklahoma State made a lot of progress in their come back when they forced turnovers. Knowles puts significant emphasis on the turnover margin and creating opportunities for the defense to create takeaways.
Here, Notre Dame runs their “pin-and-pull” concept and has it well blocked. Oklahoma State flows to the ball, and when the running back is stood up, another player comes in and forces the turnover.
In the next play, Oklahoma State drops seven defenders, with the two linebackers playing underneath any in breaking routes. Notre Dame’s quarterback does not see the linebacker and throws the football right to him. This play iced the game for the most part, and the turnovers are what lost Notre Dame the Fiesta Bowl. If Ohio State can make Notre Dame’s offense one-dimensional, they can force the Irish into mistakes. If the Buckeyes win the turnover battle to go along with their explosive offense, they could make a huge statement in Week 1.
Last season, Ohio State struggled to win games when they were challenged up front. Week 1 against Notre Dame will test that immediately. The Buckeyes have a ton of talent on the offensive side and they will be looking to make a statement. This statement will start with establishing physicality in the run game. Ohio State will need to show it can win in the red zone and in short yardage situations to set the tone for 2022. After that, establishing rhythm in the passing game and opening up the downfield passing game will be how the offense starts really attacking Notre Dame. Ryan Day’s patience will be tested, but if he remains patient, the big plays will open up.
On defense, Ohio State will need to limit Tyler Buchner’s running ability from the jump. If they can do that and force Notre Dame to beat them through the air, the Buckeyes can really start getting after the Fighting Irish offense. Against a young quarterback they will need to get consistent pressure and force him into rushed passing decisions. If they can do this and force turnovers, getting the ball back in the offense’s hands is never a bad thing. Knowles will be tested, but the confidence is there and the Buckeyes will be looking to attack on the defensive side of the ball.
Game 1 is here, and first games always brings a level of weirdness for teams. Ohio State will need to settle in early, and if they can get an early lead, they will be in an advantageous position over a Notre Dame team that lacks explosiveness. For the Buckeyes, remaining disciplined and capitalizing on mistakes will be the separating factor in this game. If the Buckeyes can do those two things, Ohio State fans will have a lot to celebrate Saturday night.