Ohio State will open the 100th year of football at Ohio Stadium in style, hosting the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a clash of top-five teams on Saturday night. It always is a huge tilt when the two programs meet, as this is the fourth-consecutive meeting where both teams are ranked in the top 10.
As if emotions weren’t going to be high enough with such a monumental battle under the lights, Ohio State will be honoring the 2002 team, which went on to win a national title under head coach Jim Tressel.
History with Notre Dame
Saturday’s contest will be the first time the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish have met in the regular season since 1996. Ohio State holds a 4-2 edge in the series, winning the last four meetings after Notre Dame won the first two meetings all the way back in 1935 and 1936. The last two times the teams matched up came in the Fiesta Bowl, with Ohio State winning 34-20 in 2006 and 44-28 in 2016. The Buckeyes will travel to South Bend next year to take on the Fighting Irish on Sept. 23.
An early test
Expectations in Columbus and around Ohio are high for the Buckeyes, who enter the season ranked second in the country, with only Alabama ranked higher. This is the 10th-straight year in which Ohio State has been ranked in the top 10 to start the season.
Ohio State will be looking to extend a streak of 22 season-opening wins. The last time the Buckeyes failed to win their first game of the season came in the 1999 Kickoff Classic, when they fell to Miami 23-12 at The Meadowlands. Saturday’s game will mark the 10th time Ohio State has opened the season with a ranked team. The last time the Buckeyes started the season against a ranked team was in 2003, when they hosted the 17th ranked Washington Huskies.
Notre Dame starts the season ranked fifth in the country, which ties for the highest-ranked team Ohio State has opened the season against. The Buckeyes took on Penn State in 1978 and Alabama in 1986, when both teams were ranked fifth prior to the season-opening game.
Looking to bounce back
While his job isn’t in jeopardy, this feels like a critical year for head coach Ryan Day, who is 34-4 with the Buckeyes. Last year saw Ohio State drop their first game against Michigan since 2011. The loss to their rival led to expected anger from the Ohio State fanbase. According to Day, there was even an incident at a Kroger where he was heckled and criticized while shopping for groceries.
Day made a big move when he brought in Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to revamp a defense that has struggled over the last few years. During this time in Stillwater, Knowles turned the Oklahoma State into one of the best in the country. Last year the Cowboys ranked first in the country in sacks and fifth in total defense.
That’s our quarterback
While there are plenty of questions about the defense, the same is definitely not true about the offense. C.J. Stroud was not only a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, the quarterback is coming off a scintillating performance in the Rose Bowl that saw him throw for 573 yards and six touchdowns in a 48-45 win over Utah.
Stroud is one of the favorites to win the Heisman this year, and is already being projected as the top pick of the 2023 NFL Draft. In his first year as the starting quarterback, Stroud threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns despite sitting out the Akron game to give a shoulder injury time to heal.
For teams around the rest of the country, losing Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave to the NFL would be a huge deal. Ohio State is able to shake the losses of those great wide receivers off because of the incredible depth that wide receivers coach Brian Hartline has recruited to come to Columbus. The Rose Bowl gave a glimpse of the future at wide receiver for the Buckeyes.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba capped off a great season with an electric performance in Pasadena. Smith-Njigba caught 15 passes for a school record 347 yards. The wideout from Texas finished the 2021 season by cracking the 100-yard mark in each of the last five games of the year. When it was all said and done, Smith-Njigba totaled 95 catches for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore season.
Joining Smith-Njigba at wide receiver this year is Marvin Harrison Jr., who had a breakout part at the Rose Bowl. The son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver found the end zone three times against the Utes, solidifying his spot just behind Smith-Njigba on the depth chart. Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming figure to also play big roles in the the passing game this season.
With all the talk about Stroud and Smith-Njigba, running back TreVeyon Henderson is almost like a forgotten man in the offense. Henderson burst onto the scene last year, rushing for 1,248 yards and scoring 19 total touchdowns, setting an Ohio State freshman record for scores. The only freshman in the country to find the end zone more than Henderson was Marshall running back Rasheen Ali.
The beef is back
A big thing that will help Stroud have another huge year is the Buckeyes have a number of returning starters on the offense line. Center Luke Wypler and left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. both started 13 games last year. Last year Johnson played right guard, but will be moving back to his more natural tackle position.
At the other end of the offensive line is Dawand Jones, who started 12 games at right tackle last year. Jones and Johnson give Ohio State one of the best tackle tandems in the country. Rounding out the line is right guard Matthew Jones, who started three games last year, and left guard Donovan Jackson, a former five-star prospect.
Looking for a resurgence
An area where Ohio State will look to improve on this year is their pass rush. While the Buckeyes recorded 36 sacks last year, which ranked 34th in the NCAA, the defensive line has too much talent to not get into the backfield more. The defensive line might not have a Chase Young or one of the Bosa brothers to wreck havoc, but they do have a number of highly talented players that can create headaches for opposing offenses.
A reason for optimism this year for the defensive line is J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer are now in their second season in Columbus, which should help up their production since they’ll be more comfortable at the college level. Sawyer recorded three sacks last year, while Tuimoloau added 2.5 sacks.
The top-two returning sackers from last year’s team are Tyleik Williams and Zach Harrison. Williams surprised many with the pressure he created, notching five sacks as a freshman in limited playing time. Harrison will be looking to looking to close out an Ohio State career that had high expectations coming in. The Lewis Center native has 8.5 career sacks, with four of those coming in 2021.
With some of the performances over the last few years, it is obvious that the Ohio State needs more from their linebackers if they want to be a serious national title contender. It feels like things are trending in the right direction for the linebackers, especially after what we saw from Tommy Eichenberg in the Rose Bowl. Eichenberg was all over the field against Utah, registering 17 tackles. If Eichenberg can continue his growth at the position, it’s likely he will be the first Buckeye linebacker to crack the 100 tackles mark in a season since Raekwon McMillan in 2016.
Eichenberg is the now at linebacker for Ohio State, but the future is definitely true freshman C.J. Hicks, who was one of the most sought-after linebacker prospects in the country. Luckily for Ohio State, they don’t have to rush Hicks onto the field, they can let the true freshman earn his snaps. Along with Eichenberg and Hicks, Teradja Mitchell, Steele Chambers, and Cody Simon are a few linebackers that will see time on the field throughout the season.
The biggest difference that we’ll see in the Ohio State defense this year now that Knowles is the defensive coordinator is they’ll be playing three safeties. The Buckeyes are very deep at safety, which should help the defense adjust to Knowles’ tactics quickly. It will also help that along with Knowles, Ohio State was able to lure Tanner McCalister to Columbus from Oklahoma State. The familiarity that McCalister has with what Knowles wants to do will huge for the Buckeye defense.
Along with McCalister, Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor have a hold of the other two safety spots. Hickman was Ohio State’s leading tackler last year, recording 100 tackles. Hickman saw his role expand last year after Proctor was lost for the rest of the season to injury during the Oregon game. Denzel Burke and Cameron Burke will fill out the rest of the secondary, with the duo having a combined 18 starts at cornerback.
Notre Dame’s new era
As if this game didn’t already have enough storylines, former Buckeye Marcus Freeman will open up his first season as Notre Dame’s head coach on Saturday night. Following the departure of Brian Kelly to LSU, Freeman was named the 30th head coach of the Fighting Irish. Freeman served as interim head coach against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl before taking over as the permanent head coach. Freeman wasn’t able to lead the Fighting Irish to victory in January, as Oklahoma State won 37-35 in Glendale.
Notre Dame finished the 2021 season with an 11-2 record. Aside from the setback against Oklahoma State, the only other loss the Fighting Irish suffered was against Cincinnati, who finished the season undefeated. Notre Dame will have some key pieces from last year’s team to replace, though.
A few new faces
Lining up under center for the Fighting Irish on Saturday night is Tyler Buchner, who will be making his first career start. Last year, Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan took the snaps at quarterback for Notre Dame. Coan threw for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns in 13 games. Buchner did see a little bit of action throughout the year, throwing for 298 and three touchdowns, while also adding 336 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The sophomore from Evanston will look to continue the success Notre Dame quarterbacks have had in their first starts at the school. Fighting Irish quarterbacks are 42-16 in their first career starts. The last eight quarterbacks that have made their debut under center for Notre Dame have won their first starts.
Another hole Notre Dame will be looking to fill will be at running back, where Kyren Williams has moved on to the NFL. After rushing for 1,002 yards and 14 scores last year, Williams was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams.
With Williams now at the professional level, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs will now be the featured backs for the Fighting Irish. Diggs is Notre Dame’s leading returning rusher, racking up 230 yards and three touchdowns last year. Tyree was a little more versatile in 2021, adding 24 catches to his 222 yards rushing.
Mayer & company
While Tyree does give the Fighting Irish an option out of the backfield in the passing game, Buchner’s main target through the year in the air will be Michael Mayer. The tight end led Notre Dame with 71 catches last year, establishing himself as one of the best tight ends in the country. Entering the 2022 season, Mayer has 113 career catches, putting him 27 behind tying Tyler Eifert for most in school history by a tight end.
Notre Dame is going to need Mayer to be even better than he was last year, since the Fighting Irish doesn’t have a ton of experience returning. Braden Lenzy is the leading returning wide receiver after hauling in 32 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns in 2021. Joining Lenzy as a starter at wide receiver is Lorenzo Styles, who is the brother of Ohio State freshman safety Sonny Styles.
In the trenches
The Buckeye defensive line is going to have their work cutout for them trying to put pressure on Buchner on Saturday night. Notre Dame returns an experienced and talented offensive line, led by Jarrett Patterson, who shifted from center to left guard to make room for Zeke Correll. At the other guard spot is Joe Lugg, starter of 20 games so far in his career. Joe Alt started the final eight games of the season at left tackle last year, while right tackle Blake Fisher became the first true freshman to start on the Notre Dame offensive line since Sam Young in 2006.
Notre Dame’s (Fos)key defender
One way that Notre Dame has a chance in this game is if Isaiah Foskey can pickup where he left off in 2021, where he recorded 11 sacks. The defensive end has 15.5 career sacks, putting him within reach of Justin Tuck’s school record of 24.5 career sacks. Foskey is also great at separating opponents from the football, as he forced six fumbles in 2021.
The Buckeyes can’t focus all their attention on Foskey, since Notre Dame has a number of other experienced defensive linemen that are itching to get into the Buckeye backfield. On the interior of the defensive line are Jayson Ademilola and Harold Cross III, while Rylie Mills will line up opposite Foskey.
A toned middle
Even though the linebackers don’t have a game-changer like Foskey, Notre Dame does have an experienced until. JD Bertrand finished the season with 102 tackles in 13 games, with 6.5 of those stops being behind the line of scrimmage. Jack Kiser is a ballhawk, as evidenced by his interception returns for scores against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. There were high hopes for Marist Liufau heading into the 2021 season, but an early injury slowed down some of the hype.
The Buckeyes will see a familiar name in the secondary on Saturday night. Lining up at safety for the Fighting Irish will be two-time All-American Brandon Joseph, who transferred into the program from Northwestern. Joseph picked off six passes in a shortened 2020 season that saw Northwestern take on Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Along with Joseph in the defensive backfield, Notre Dame also has safety DJ Brown and cornerback Cam Hart. Brown and Hart combined for five interceptions and over 80 tackles last year. Even though Ohio State has an incredible group of wide receivers, the Fighting Irish have to feel good about the defensive backs they will have on the field to try and slow Stroud and the Buckeye passing game down.
This game has everything you could ever want to kickoff a season. Both teams ranked in the top five, a game under the lights at one of college football’s most iconic stadiums, a couple former Buckeyes returning to Columbus to their alma mater as opposing coaches, and plenty of other storylines that add to the intrigue of this game.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they likely have too many questions heading into this season to keep up on the field. A new starting quarterback, green running backs, and an inexperienced head coach are not exactly what you want heading into a place like Ohio Stadium on a night where they’ll be celebrating 100 years at the stadium, as well as the 2002 championship team.
Ohio State has heard all the doubters throughout the offseason, and Ryan Day responded early to try and improve his team’s chances at a national title. There’s no concerns about the offense, since Stroud is returning after an outstanding 2021 season. Jaxon Smith-Njigba has the look of the best wide receiver in the country, and TreVeyon Henderson is one of the top running backs in the country despite being only a sophomore.
The area where the Buckeyes have questions to answer is on defense. Luckily, Ohio State should have an edge in this game because Buchner has seen so little time on the field. The Buckeye defense is hungry to silence the doubters, so expect the unit to come out with a chip on the shoulder on Saturday night. Ohio State has experience all around the defense, they just needed a confident coach to put it all together. From the sounds of it, Knowles is that guy.
Notre Dame will likely go on to win a bunch of games this year, but this isn’t one that they’ll be able to put in the win column. Ohio State just has too much on offense to keep up with. The Fighting Irish might be able to slow the Buckeyes a little since they have some strong players on defense, the problem they’ll have is doing it for the whole game. The Buckeyes hit a gear that the Fighting Irish don’t have as the game goes on.