The No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes are heading up to South Bend, Indiana on Saturday night for the biggest game of either team’s early season. The two top-10 squads will face off on NBC at 7:30 p.m. ET and while all of the eyes in the college football world will be on Notre Dame Stadium, there are still significant unknowns about both teams, primarily because of the level of competition that each has played thus far in the season.
The No. 9 Fighting Irish opened up their season in Ireland during Week 0 against Navy, winning 42-3. They have since followed it up with victories over FCS’s Tennessee State (56-3), N.C. State (45-24), and Central Michigan (41-17). Obviously, Saturday’s matchup against the Buckeyes will be a step up in competition — as it will be for OSU — but given the uncertainty of just who this ND squad is, we wanted to burrow down a little into the numbers to see what Ohio State fans should expect from their team’s prime time opponent this weekend.
Notre Dame has the No. 4 pass defense in the country
Yes, the Fighting Irish have been lights out against the pass this season, and we know that the Buckeyes’ offense will live and die through the air. So, this appears to be a classic strength vs. strength matchup, but how much do we actually know about ND’s pass defense?
On the season, they have thus far given up just 126.8 yards per game through the air, allowing only two touchdowns while picking off opposing quarterbacks five times. No matter how you slice that up, it is impressive, but the Irish haven’t exactly squared off against any prolific passing teams yet this season.
While the numbers are slightly skewed because they all played ND, the Irish’s FBS opponents currently rank 130th (Navy), 76th (N.C. State), and 124th (Central Michigan) through the air; and remember there are only 133 teams in FBS. The Eddie George-coached Tennesse State Tigers are ranked as the 89th passing offense out of 122 teams in FCS and only put up 67 passing yards against Notre Dame, so that obviously doesn’t help anything either.
Clearly, the Irish pass defense is very good, but the question will be whether it is truly elite, or if it has been propped up a bit by ineffectual offenses. The Buckeyes are averaging 318 passing yards per game through their first three contests — 2.5 times as many as ND has been giving up. So, who comes out of this matchup with the upper hand will likely go a long way to determining the winner of the game.
Keep an eye on Notre Dame cornerback Benjamin Morrison. He is likely to be called upon to cover Marvin Harrison Jr., and if Marv is able to play as freely as he has in the last two games, that could help shift the balance to the Buckeyes.
Sam Hartman has a QBR of 217.81, fourth best in the country
Again, as with all things early season, numbers against lesser opponents need to be taken with a grain of salt for both sides, but Sam Hartman has been remarkably efficient through four games this season, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. In 2022, the former Wake Forest quarterback was 15th nationally in quarterback rating at 159.40 (C.J. Stroud led the nation at 177.66), so it stands to reason that by upgrading the pieces around him, Hartman will see similar improvements in his production as well.
In the first quarter of the season, Ohio State’s secondary — especially its cornerbacks — have looked pretty spectacular, allowing only 140.3 yards through the air per game, just three spots nationally behind ND. But even as prolific of a passing attack as Western Kentucky has on the Group of 5 level, Autin Reed pales in comparison to Hartman.
The ND signal-caller is averaging 11.8 per pass attempt, good for fourth nationally. He also leads the country with 13 passing touchdowns — admittedly, the Week 0 game gives him a bit of an unfair advantage. However, he has not yet thrown an interception, something that is a bit uncharacteristic from his days in Winston-Salem.
Coming into this season, Hartman has thrown a pick every 33.89 pass attempts; he has thrown the ball 90 times so far in 2023. So, if some of those turnovers were because of the unique mesh passing system at Wake or his lesser talented teammates, then maybe that's not who he will be with the Irish, but, if it is part of who he just naturally is as a passer, then maybe he’s due to give it away a few times tomorrow night.
Notre Dame is 10th nationally in third-down conversions
It has been no secret that the Buckeyes have struggled on third down early in the season, on both sides of the ball; and that will be tested again this weekend. The ND offense currently ranks 10th nationally converting 24 of its 44 third down attempts this season for a 54.55% conversion percentage; for comparison, Ohio State has picked up just 12 of 33 attempts (36.36%) on offense. The Irish are also a perfect 4 for 4 on fourth down, while OSU is 6 of 8.
Notre Dame is currently ranked 30th in FBS, allowing opponents to convert on 31.67% of their third downs. If the Buckeyes can figure out a way to get their conversion rate closer to 50%, that will go a long way to extending drives long enough to give McCord and his vast array of offensive weapons enough opportunities to put up points.
On the other side, in their first two games against Indiana and Youngstown, the Buckeye defense allowed their opponents to convert 12 of 30 third-down attempts (40%) — which would currently rank in the middle of FBS — but they seemed to turn things around a bit last weekend. Ohio State only allowed the Hilltoppers to pick up three of their 16 third downs. That brought the Buckeyes’ season average to 31.61 %, good for 37th nationally.
Whether or not the OSU defense can get off the field in those situations on Saturday will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game. Ryan Day has bemoaned the way that the new college football clock rules have limited the number of snaps that his offense has been able to take this year, but a lot of that has to do with the much-improved defense not being as effective as possible on third down.
Notre Dame has allowed only four touchdowns on opponents’ 12 red zone trips
Traditionally, the hallmark of a good team is how they perform in the red zone. Through its first three games, Ohio State has been moderately successful in close, scoring on 8 of 9 trips, including 6 touchdowns. However, the Irish defense has been very good in this department in 2023.
Their four opponents have only made it to the red zone 12 times and they have only scored TDs on four of those occasions; that is good for ninth-best nationally. ND has also allowed three field goals from these trips.
Assuming the Buckeyes don’t just score 20+ yard touchdowns on each possession (which I suppose certainly could happen), the team’s ability to score six when the field is shortened will be key. Against a team as solid as Notre Dame, you can’t give up scoring opportunities and settle for field goals. As I mentioned before, Day has gone for it on fourth down eight times this year, and unless the Bucks have a 4th and 7+ from outside the 15, I would like to see him be aggressive in these situations.
If he trusts his offense to pick up those conversions, it puts the pressure on ND; and if they don’t score or get a new set of downs, it allows the defense an opportunity to pin its collective ears back in the shadow of the goal line.
Audric Estime is averaging 8.3 yards per carry
Our own Jami Jurich has been championing Notre Dame running back Audric Estime as the non-quarterback Hiesman Trophy favorite for a few weeks now, and rightfully so. The junior back is currently ranked No. 2 nationally with 130.25 yards per game. His 521 yards are already more than halfway to his 2022 total of 920, but what is really impressive has been the efficiency with which he has been able to pick up those yards.
Through four games against admittedly weak competition, Estime has racked up his 521 yards on just 63 carries, meaning that he is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt; that is third best in the country for anyone with over 25 carries. Currently, the Buckeyes are No. 15 in FBS in terms of yards per carry allowed. The Siler Bullets have only let up 2.53 ypc thus far in 2023.
As good as Sam Hartman is, Estime’s effectiveness very well could be the difference in the game. If Marcus Freeman’s team is able to prolong drives by moving the chains and keeping the clock running, they will essentially be playing the best defense possible against the OSU offense; they will be keeping them on the sidelines.
But, if Ohio State is able to keep Estime’s number down around 5 yards per carry — he averaged 5.9 last season — then the defense will have a far better chance at finishing drives and getting the ball back into the offense’s hands.