The Athletic has live coverage of Notre Dame vs. Ohio State in Week 4 college football action
Have the season’s first few weeks revealed how No. 6 Ohio State at No. 9 Notre Dame will play out on Saturday night? Beat writers Pete Sampson (Fighting Irish) and Cameron Teague Robinson (Buckeyes) are here to compare notes as the college football world heads to South Bend:
Sampson: We’re here. It’s Ohio State week for Notre Dame and Notre Dame week for Ohio State. After seven warmup games showed plenty about both programs but hardly revealed all, college football gets to see the Irish and Buckeyes in full. And Cameron, from the Notre Dame beat it’s safe to say this will be as hyped an Irish home game as any since perhaps the Bush Push game 18 years ago. There have been some big ones since — the Clemson wins in 2020 and 2022, the loss to Georgia in 2017, the Michigan showdown in 2018 and the goal line stand against Stanford in 2012 — but the vibe around Ohio State is different.
So let’s start with vibes. What’s the feeling around Columbus?
Sampson: Notre Dame is capable of beating Ohio State. Are Irish ready to meet the moment?
Teague: It was a bit uneasy entering the Western Kentucky game. After two inconsistent performances against Indiana and Youngstown State, a lot of fans were worried about going to Notre Dame and losing. The way Ohio State beat WKU eases those concerns a little bit. Not that the Hilltoppers are world-beaters, but scoring 49 unanswered points will do a lot to instill confidence.
There are still concerns, especially when you watch what Sam Hartman has been doing. Is the vibe in South Bend that he can be the difference in the matchup?
Sampson: If Notre Dame wins, Hartman will be the reason why. Full stop.
It’s incredible to look around college football and see the quarterbacks Notre Dame took to Columbus last year against C.J. Stroud. Tyler Buchner lost a quarterback competition at Alabama, then got benched in his first start at USF. Drew Pyne came off the bench Saturday for Arizona State against Fresno State, only to get benched after committing four turnovers in just 23 snaps. Yet, somehow, Notre Dame hung around Ohio State for three quarters with Buchner starting and Pyne backing him up.
Now it’s Hartman, who’s third nationally in pass efficiency and can make opponents defend the whole field. His deep shots against Central Michigan were picture perfect, the kind of stuff you’d expect to see from Ohio State quarterbacks most weekends. It’s a different style of offense from a year ago when Notre Dame could pass only after hammering the run game. Now the Irish can beat teams in multiple ways.
I’m not saying Notre Dame’s offensive production will carry over into Saturday, but the Irish gave the Buckeyes little to worry about last season. Now Notre Dame can make Ohio State actually defend.
I wanted to dig into the Western Kentucky game a bit because that’s not a typical Group of 5 program. The Hilltoppers can score and push the ball vertically. Giving up 284 yards and 10 points is a legit performance from Jim Knowles and Co. Was the defense the biggest takeaway from Saturday?
Saturday was the performance Ohio State needed. Are the Buckeyes ready for Notre Dame now?
Teague: It was the first time the Buckeyes were tested through the air. Austin Reed led the nation in passing yards last year, and receiver Malachi Corley will be in the NFL next year. Ohio State cornerback Denzel Burke was terrific, as he’s making himself a name as one of the most well-rounded corners in the country. And the rest of the secondary gave up just one big play.
Still, the offense was the biggest takeaway for me. That was the best game we’ve seen from them, as they scored on six of seven first-half drives. They were methodical on some and explosive on others. Kyle McCord seems to have his connection back with high school teammate Marvin Harrison Jr., and the rest of the playmakers are falling in line. I’m not sure there’s a secondary in the country that can contain Harrison and Emeka Egbuka all game, so the question becomes the offensive line. I thought they were better on Saturday and built some confidence, but Notre Dame’s defensive line is going to be a different test.
I assume Notre Dame is going to be pretty aggressive and get after McCord. I know Notre Dame gave up 24 points to NC State, but the Irish also had three interceptions. How do you think they’ll plan to contain Ohio State’s offense?
Sampson: Notre Dame has to get mike linebacker JD Bertrand back. He missed last week while recovering from a concussion, but he’s expected to play against Ohio State. Defensive coordinator Al Golden likes to send the inside linebackers on blitzes, although the effectiveness of that approach is up for debate. Regardless, look for Bertrand and Marist Liufau to be active in the A-gap and B-gap. When the linebacker group is healthy, it’s one of the oldest in the country. Bertrand, Liufau and Jack Kiser have combined for 62 career starts. Considering how complex Golden likes to get, having three linebackers who can handle it is paramount. Notre Dame doesn’t have a great pass rusher on the defensive line, but it is an old group too with all seniors in the starting lineup, including grad transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste from Ohio State.
Notre Dame’s secondary held up well last year and returns basically intact. Cornerbacks Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart are Notre Dame’s best combo at that position since at least 2018. Nickelback Thomas Harper was a grad transfer from Oklahoma State and is basically a starter with how the Irish roll with personnel, much more nickel than base 4-3.
My hunch is Notre Dame will take its chances with Ohio State’s receivers, gambling that it can get to McCord. I have no idea if that will work, but making the quarterback beat you means something different than last year.
I’m more concerned about Notre Dame blocking Ohio State’s pass rush than how it defends the passing game. Obviously, Ohio State is loaded with five-stars on the defensive line. Is this pass rush classic Ohio State with Chase Young or the Bosa brothers? Or is this group a step down?
Everyone remembers J.T. Tuimoloau's game at Penn State. He wants to be known for more.
Teague: Oh no, it’s not quite that good, even if it’s quite talented. JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer are NFL prospects at defensive end, and Michael Hall Jr. might be the most underrated defensive tackle in the country.
All of the preseason hype surrounded Tuimoloau, who hasn’t registered a sack yet. Neither has Sawyer. Ohio State fans will tell you that the line isn’t getting enough pressure, but that’s not entirely true. Western Kentucky was the first chance they had to really get after the quarterback, and Sawyer had seven pressures and Tuimoloau had six, per TruMedia. Sacks can sometimes be overhyped, especially against a team like Western Kentucky that gets the ball out quickly.
If they can rattle Hartman, Ohio State has a good chance because the secondary has been terrific. Knowles will likely mix in a lot of pressures. He’s known for disguising his coverages and blitzes, and they finally have the depth in the secondary to do that.
How have Notre Dame’s receivers been at winning in one-on-one coverage? Because Ohio State had problems giving up big plays last year.
Sampson: Notre Dame’s receivers have been productive, but nobody has tried to get physical with them at the line of scrimmage, which is how I’d play it if I were Knowles. If Ohio State gets beat at the line and gives up an explosive pass play, it can live with that. There’s isn’t a No. 1 receiver in this group, which Notre Dame has managed because of Hartman. He’s found the matchups that work. Does that work against Ohio State? I’m not so sure. It wouldn’t shock me if the Irish receiving corps comes crashing back to earth. It’s hard to take deep shots if you can’t get off the line of scrimmage.
So tell me about your three-game snapshot of McCord. Maybe he’s great down the road, but this is his first true road start (no offense, Bloomington) against a defense that likes to mix it up. Does the McCord we see on Saturday look more like the one who was just OK at Indiana or the hyper-efficient version from the Western Kentucky game?
Notre Dame won’t win unless it wins the quarterback battle decisively. Unlike last year, the Irish actually might.
Teague: I think we get something in the middle. McCord is coming in with a lot of confidence after winning the job for good and then having his best game. He can get confused at times with what he sees, but he’s done a good job of tucking it and running or throwing it away when needed — at least beyond his strip-sack fumble against Western Kentucky when he held onto the ball too long.
It comes down to the offense line. Will they protect him enough to allow him to feel comfortable? I’m assuming Day will try to get some quick things going early to get McCord in a rhythm and then let him choose his spots to air it out. They’ll also rely on the run game. TreVeyon Henderson has shown flashes of his All-America talent again, even if his numbers don’t pop. He’s carried the ball only 30 times but is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
A big storyline, of course, is Freeman taking on his alma mater again. How have the Irish taken shape under Freeman in his second year?
At Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman is just one of the coaches: ‘He wants to help other sports’
Sampson: Freeman is learning on the job, which shows in ways beyond his record. Since a total flat tire against an awful Stanford team last October, Notre Dame is 10-1 with a loss at USC. Freeman still needs to grow into this job. Eighteen total games isn’t enough to know what’s coming over the next few seasons, but there’s legitimate optimism that Notre Dame’s gamble on a first-time head coach with a defensive background will pan out. He’s communicating better. This coaching staff is more loyal to him. Recruiting is good, though it still needs to find another level. Freeman has the support of the fan base almost universally, which is strange when juxtaposed against Ryan Day and all he’s accomplished at Ohio State, where everything is judged on the Michigan game.
Speaking of recruiting, we’ve added the table below showing how each roster was assembled based on the 247Sports Composite recruiting ratings. Any surprises for you? The quarterback dynamics are a “stars aren’t everything” moment, but the rest of the breakdowns basically went to script, other than running back. The Irish have a very good backfield led by Audric Estime, but the idea they have more talent than the Buckeyes wasn’t something I considered. And man, Ohio State recruits well on defense.
|Pos||Notre Dame||Ohio State|
Teague: Yeah the running backs are surprising to me — especially with Henderson being a five-star and the top running back in his class — but then again, Miyan Williams was an under-recruited prospect and Chip Trayanum was originally recruited to Ohio State as a linebacker. So that group is deep but has been more development-heavy than you might think.
Despite Ohio State having more overall talent on paper, this game seems to be pretty even across the board. Would you agree? Their strengths and weaknesses seem to match up on the field.
Sampson: It does feel lot more even this year, not that the talent is actually even.
I know Urban Meyer took a dig at Notre Dame for having to go into the transfer portal to get a sixth-year senior from Wake Forest. And Notre Dame’s current staff also would like to know why the past staff recruited so poorly at quarterback that it came to this! But Hartman is the reason why the Irish have a shot to win on Saturday.
Notre Dame knows it. Ohio State knows it, too. Last year it felt like Notre Dame was trying to run out the clock in the first quarter. This year it doesn’t have to game plan around its quarterback play.
To me, this game feels like it’s an “if you’re ever going to beat Ohio State, this is the year” kind of matchup for Notre Dame. And that doesn’t mean Notre Dame is actually going to do it. It just makes sense that Ohio State comes back to earth this season with a new quarterback and three legit road tests, plus Penn State. Losing at Notre Dame would probably be the least punitive setback of the four.
So, am I talking myself into a Notre Dame win? I might be.
Teague: I’ve gone back and forth on this one. Even if losing to Notre Dame wouldn’t impact the Big Ten race, it would be hard to imagine the Buckeyes bouncing back to beat both Penn State and Michigan and get to the Playoff, so there’s little doubt a loss would cause a lot of angst.
Like you, I think it comes down to the quarterbacks. We’ll save predictions for later this week, but I do believe it will be closer than last year’s game when Ohio State really took control in the second half. As an unbiased college football fan who will be at a wedding Saturday night and not covering the game, I’ll be excited to see that.
Sampson: A wedding! We’re gonna need a personal essay next week on what it was like to watch Notre Dame-Ohio State on your iPhone from the reception.
Teague: Surrounded by the groom, a Notre Dame fan, and his best man, an Ohio State fan, could make for some interesting fireworks!
Inside Notre Dame's strategy to keep Ohio State red out of the stadium
(Top photo of Benjamin Morrison and Emeka Egbuka: Adam Cairns / USA Today)