Ohio State faces their toughest test of the 2023 season so far on Saturday night when they travel to South Bend to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. These two programs are a couple of the most storied in college football, combing for 1898 wins all-time. Along with all the wins, the two schools have had over 1,000 players selected in the NFL Draft.
Saturday night’s contest will be the eighth time the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish have met on the football field, with Ohio State winning the last five meetings. This will be the second leg of a home-and-home series, which kicked off last year with a 21-10 Ohio State win in Columbus to open up the season. The Buckeyes will be traveling to South Bend for the first time since 1996, where they won 29-16 at Notre Dame Stadium. Each of the last five games between the schools have seen both teams ranked inside the AP Top 10.
One area where Ohio State has been strong under Ryan Day is when they hit the road. The Buckeyes are 16-1 in true road games under Day, with the only loss during that span coming in 2021 up in Ann Arbor against Michigan. This will be Ohio State’s second of three games in Indiana this season. In the season opener, the Buckeyes beat Indiana 23-3 in Bloomington, and later in the year they’ll head to West Lafayette to battle Purdue.
Ohio State hopes a fourth game in the Hoosier State is in the cards, as if they win the Big Ten East they’ll be playing in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
Finding their next gear
The Buckeyes enter this game coming off their best performance of the season, beating Western Kentucky 63-10. Kyle McCord showed why Ryan Day named him starting quarterback, completing 19-of-23 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage total fell one yard shy of tying his career-high, which he set in 2021 when he started against Akron while C.J. Stroud was nursing a shoulder injury.
Much like the Youngstown State game, McCord’s preferred targets last week were Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. A week after registering a career-long 71-yard touchdown reception, Harrison bettered that with a 75-yard score in the second quarter against the Hilltoppers. With his five receptions in the win on Saturday, Harrison reached 100 career receptions.
The other two touchdowns thrown by McCord against Western Kentucky went to Emeka Egbuka, who caught both scores in the final two minutes of the second quarter. Egbuka finished the game with four catches for 57 yards, pushing him past 1,500 career receiving yards. The junior receiver is now five receptions away from joining Harrison in the 100 career catch club.
Harrison and Egbuka weren’t the only Buckeyes to hit personal milestones on Saturday. TreVeyon Henderson became the 28th Ohio State player to rush for over 2,000 yards while wearing scarlet and gray. Henderson found the end zone twice for second straight game. Unlike the first couple games, where there was more of a split in carries with Chip Trayanum and Miyan Williams, Henderson carried the football 13 times against the Hilltoppers, which was eight carries more than Trayanum and Williams. Trayanum did have the longest run of the game against Western Kentucky, scoring a 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The Silver Bullets are making big strides
As good as the offense was against Western Kentucky, the defense is even better, and is in the conversation as one of the best defenses in the country. Through three games, the Buckeyes have give up just 671 yards and 20 points, which is the fewest a Buckeye defense has allowed in the first three games since 1975 when they gave up just 16 points. Currently the Ohio State defense is ranked third in the country when it comes to yardage allowed per game with a 223.7 yard average.
Against the Hilltoppers, the Ohio State defense actually scored more points than Western Kentucky did. Tyleik Williams recovered a fumble in the end zone in the third quarter, and in the fourth quarter Jermaine Matthews Jr. picked off a pass and returned it 58 yards for a score, marking the 12th straight season the Buckeyes have recorded a pick-six. Along with that streak, Ohio State now has won 40 straight games when they have forced a turnover, with the last loss coming in 2017 against Oklahoma.
While most of the defensive line has struggled to make an impact so far this year, the same can’t be said about Tyleik Williams, who is third on the team with 17 tackles. Along with his fumble recovery touchdown, Williams recorded seven tackles against Western Kentucky, which is a career-high. Williams is now four tackles away from tying his season-high of 21 tackles from last season.
Leading the Buckeyes in tackles through three games are linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers, which is no surprise since they were the team’s top two tacklers last season. After starting the year with four tackles against Indiana, Eichenberg has increased his stops in each game. The senior, who is the brother of former Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg, recorded 10 tackles last week, with nine of those being solo stops.
Along with the eight tackles he was credited with against the Hilltoppers, Chambers snagged his fourth career interception. For as good as Eichenberg has been, an argument can be made that Chambers has been even better since he makes plays in all facets of the game. It feels like Chambers continues to improve each week after switching over from running back a couple years ago.
The best player through three games on defense for Ohio State this year has been cornerback Denzel Burke. Not only did Burke grab the first interception by a Buckeye cornerback since 2021 in the win over Youngstown State, the junior is playing even better than when he burst onto the scene as a freshman. Burke also has forced a fumble this year, and is leading the team with five pass breakups.
Burke isn’t the only Ohio State defensive back that has been making waves so far this season. Davison Igbinosun has paid immediate dividends after transferring from Ole Miss during the offseason. The talented sophomore has 14 tackles on the season to go along with a fumble recovery. Sonny Styles has received a lot of praise for his stellar play through three games, teaming with Josh Proctor and Lathan Ransom at safety.
Plenty of familiar faces
There are plenty of connections between the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish. Most notable is Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman, who played linebacker at Ohio State. Last year Freeman brought fellow linebacker James Laurinaitis to South Bend as a graduate assistant before Laurinaitis returned to his alma mater to take a similar position on Ryan Day’s staff. Ohio State tight end coach Keenan Bailey spent two years with the Fighting Irish as a recruiter before making the move to Columbus. Like Bailey, Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford spent some time at Notre Dame before becoming a Buckeye assistant.
More Hart(man) this year
Notre Dame has had the luxury of playing one more game than Ohio State so far this season after making the trip to Ireland to play Navy in Week 0. The Fighting Irish have been outstanding in their first four games this year, scoring at least 41 points in each contest. The 184 points Notre Dame has scored through four games is the most they’ve scored through four games since 1914.
The offensive success for Notre Dame this season starts with quarterback Sam Hartman, who transferred into the program after piling up some big stats at Wake Forest. Hartman has thrown 90 touchdowns since 2021, which is the most by any Power 5 quarterback. So far this year, Hartman has 1,061 yards passing, 13 touchdown passes, and no interceptions. The former Demon Deacon leads all active FBS quarterbacks with 123 career touchdowns and 14,028 yards passing.
Hartman has spread the football around in his first four games at Notre Dame, with five receivers recording at least 100 yards receiving. Jayden Thomas leads the team with 12 catches, but Chris Tyree is Hartman’s big play receiver. Tyree has eight catches for 216 yards and two scores so far this season. The 27 yards per catch by Tyree ranks fifth in the FBS.
Notre Dame has a couple other targets Ohio State will have to tabs on. Tight end Holden Staes is a big threat in the red zone, as the big sophomore has a team-high four touchdown catches. Wide receiver Jaden Greathouse made a huge impact in the blowout of Navy, becoming the first Notre Dame true freshman wide receiver to catch two touchdown passes in his first game. Greathouse has 10 catches for 126 yards and three scores heading into Saturday’s contest.
Ohio State can’t only focus on stopping Notre Dame’s passing attack since the Fighting Irish have shown they have a strong running game. After rushing for 95 yards in the opener against Navy, Estime has cracked 100 yards in each of the last three games. Last week Estime ran for a career-high 176 yards against Central Michigan. Estime has found the end zone in each of the first four games, and has five rushing touchdowns so far this year.
The Notre Dame offensive line has a mixture of experience and new blood. Returning as starters on the line are center Zeke Correll and tackle Joe Alt, who is the son of former NFL All-Pro John Alt. Both Correll and Alt have started 25 games for the Fighting Irish, while Blake Fisher has started 19 games at the other tackle position. New starters on the line for Notre Dame are at the guard positions, with Rocco Spindler and Pat Coogan rounding out the starting lineup.
The Golden Domers on defense
While there are plenty of coaches on the sidelines that have been at both Notre Dame and Ohio State, there are a couple current players that have played at both schools. Ohio State has former Notre Dame receiver Lorenzo Styles on their roster, but he hasn’t made as much of an impact as Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who was previously a defensive end at Ohio State. Jean-Baptiste has 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries.
Along with Jean-Baptiste, a number of upperclassmen fill out the defensive line for Notre Dame. Rylie Mills could be one of the top interior defensive linemen draft in the 2024 NFL Draft because of the athletic ability he possesses. Mills has one of Notre Dame’s six sacks on the season, as well as 11 tackles through the first four games. Howard Cross III will man the other defensive tackle spot, while Jordan Botelho will line up opposite Jean-Baptiste at defensive end.
A rising star on the Notre Dame defense is Benjamin Morrison, who has become one of the best young cornerbacks in the country. Morrison earned Freshman All-American honors last year after intercepting six passes, and has already picked off a pass this season. As a team, the Fighting Irish have intercepted five passes this season. DJ Brown, Cam Hart, and Xavier Watts are some other Notre Dame defensive backs that will play a prominent role in the secondary trying to slow down Harrison, Egbuka, and the rest of the Ohio State receivers.
Much like how Ohio State has Tommy Eichenberg, Jack Kiser will be flying around and making plays at linebacker for Notre Dame. Kiser is coming off a 10-tackle performance against Central Michigan, which set a career-high. The grad student is one tackle away from 150 stops for his career, and is leading the team with 26 tackles. Marist Liufau will be a fixture on the field at linebacker with Kiser, and has 17 tackles so far this year. JD Bertrand is the most experience linebacker, but he missed the Central Michigan game with a concussion.
This undoubtedly will be a different Notre Dame team than what Ohio State saw last year in Columbus. The biggest change is obviously the addition of Hartman, giving the Fighting Irish a clear answer at quarterback, which is something they didn’t have last year. Notre Dame also won’t have to deal with C.J. Stroud this year, but Kyle McCord has had a few games to get his bearings as Buckeye starting quarterback, and he has gotten better with each start.
Where this game favors Ohio State is the talent the Buckeyes have at their skill positions. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka have the look of first round NFL Draft picks, which is something Notre Dame doesn’t have to the level the Buckeyes do. Taking nothing away from Audric Estime, Chris Tyree, and the rest of the skill players of the Fighting Irish, they just don’t quite have the ability to change the game quite like the Ohio State receivers and TreVeyon Henderson.
Where Notre Dame can keep this game tight is with their play in the trenches. The Fighting Irish have a couple talented offensive linemen that can keep the struggling Buckeye defensive line at bay, and you know Javontae Jean-Baptiste knows the Ohio State offensive line has been inconsistent to start the season. If the big uglies of the Buckeyes can’t keep McCord clean, then the game could shift in Notre Dame’s favor.
Last week we saw a serious step up in play for Ohio State in the 63-10 win over Western Kentucky. If Ryan Day treats this game like the Georgia game in how he calls the game offensively and not like the last two contests against Michigan, it could be a long night for the Fighting Irish. If Day falls into his old habits, then Notre Dame has a chance to snap a five-game losing streak against Ohio State.
In the end, the Buckeyes defense steps up in a game that feels like it will hang in the balance in the fourth quarter.