Game week is here.
We’re just five days away from Ohio State’s first contest of the season, and there’s even more excitement than usual due to the opponent that comes to Columbus Week 1.
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The Buckeyes, ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll, match up with No. 5 Notre Dame under the lights at Ohio Stadium for the first meeting between the two legendary Midwest college football programs in seven years.
While the Fighting Irish still haven’t won a national title since 1988, they’ve consistently been in the mix as a College Football Playoff contender, making two appearances in the past four seasons alone. Notre Dame hasn’t lost more than two games in a season since 2017, and its preseason rank speaks volumes about what pundits expect first-year head coach (and former Buckeye linebacker) Marcus Freeman can do with the program in short order.
As we count down the days before 7:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, here are five things to know about the Fighting Irish ahead of the season opener.
First-year head coach
For the first time in 13 years, Notre Dame will open a season with a head coach not named Brian Kelly.
Once Kelly left for LSU in the offseason, former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman – also a former Buckeye linebacker (2004-08) and graduate assistant (2010) – was promoted to be the 30th head coach in Fighting Irish history. Freeman’s first Irish team holds its highest preseason ranking in the AP poll in 16 years.
Freeman ruffled some feathers in Columbus on more than one occasion over the offseason. In December, Freeman insinuated in an open letter to Notre Dame in The Players’ Tribune that he made “the wrong decision” by choosing Ohio State over the Irish during his recruitment process out of high school.
In an interview with CBS Sports in June, Freeman appeared to be critical of Ohio State’s academic standards, saying that at Notre Dame, “you're forced every day to go to class” while insinuating that isn’t necessarily the case at Ohio State. Freeman later claimed he was misquoted in the interview, but still stood by his statements regarding the academic rigors at Notre Dame.
Recent first-year head coaches at Notre Dame have generally been successful, with the past three all reaching bowl games. Tyrone Willingham went 10-3 in 2002, Charlie Weis went 9-3 in 2005 and Kelly went 8-5 in 2010.
Freeman’s first game as head coach at Notre Dame was a Fiesta Bowl loss against Oklahoma State, the former home of first-year Buckeye defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
With the exception of third-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, Freeman has replaced all of Notre Dame’s assistant coaches from the 2021 season.
New starting quarterback
A first-time starter will line up under center for the Fighting Irish when festivities kick off at Ohio Stadium next weekend.
Eight days into fall camp, Freeman named sophomore passer Tyler Buchner as Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback, replacing Jack Coan from 2021. Buchner attempted 35 passes as a freshman, completing 21 of them for 298 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The No. 71 overall prospect in the 2021 class, Buchner is listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, and is also a dual-threat weapon for the Irish offense. Buchner ran the ball 46 times last season at 7.3 yards per attempt, racking up 336 yards and three scores. Not only did Buchner run the ball more than he passed it as a freshman, but he also accrued more yardage on the ground as well over the course of his 10 appearances.
Buchner won’t have a star running back returning to help lighten the load for him and the Notre Dame offense – which ranked No. 45 in the country in 2021 – as last year’s rushing leading Kyren Williams was taken in the third round of the NFL draft. However, it certainly won’t hurt to have one of the nation’s top tight ends on the roster, as 6-foot-4 junior Michael Mayer had 23 more receptions than the next-best Irish player last year (71 total) for 840 yards and seven scores.
No regular starting quarterback for Notre Dame had a full season passer rating of 160 or better since Jimmy Clausen in 2009.
Familiar faces on staff
Freeman isn’t the only former Buckeye on staff in South Bend.
After Ohio State parted ways with three-year linebackers coach Al Washington this offseason, the Columbus native and son of a former Buckeye linebacker was hired by Freeman to be Notre Dame’s defensive line coach and defensive run game coordinator. Washington previously coached alongside Freeman at Cincinnati and coached against the Buckeyes as Michigan’s linebackers coach in 2018.
Three-time All-American Buckeye linebacker James Laurinaitis also joined forces with the Fighting Irish over the offseason, accepting a role as a defensive graduate assistant to work with Freeman, his former teammate at Ohio State.
Day says OSU talked to James Laurinaitis about having a role on the Buckeye staff prior to him joining the Notre Dame program. "Great respect for him."— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) August 22, 2022
Ryan Day recently said he spoke to Laurinaitis about a position with the Buckeyes before he joined the staff in South Bend and said he has “great respect” for the scarlet and gray great.
Of course, Laurinaitis and Washington will bring plenty of familiarity with the Buckeye program to the Notre Dame locker room ahead of the season opener.
“We know the team in Columbus right now and how talented they are,” Laurinaitis said earlier this month. “You watch them on film, and you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, that’s a talented bunch.’ You can’t have all these little mistakes and think they’re alright. We need to eliminate those. There’s a sense of urgency.”
Preseason injury issues
The Irish will be banged-up at multiple spots on offense when they face the second-ranked team in the nation in the season opener.
Notre Dame had just three healthy scholarship running backs in late June, as four-star freshman Jadarian Price suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. At that time, returning rushing leader Logan Diggs (who had just 230 yards in 2021) was still dealing with an injury issue from the spring.
Notre Dame also lost a projected starter at wide receiver during fall camp when sixth-year wideout Avery Davis suffered a torn ACL. Davis was Notre Dame’s returning receiving leader from 2021, with 27 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns in eight games.
On the offensive line, fifth-year star Jarrett Patterson has dealt with a right foot sprain in the lead-up to the season that has left his status questionable for the season opener. ESPN recently ranked him as the No. 23 overall player in the sport entering this season, and he is also listed as Mel Kiper’s second-best draft-eligible center for 2023.
The Irish offense looks like it will be a bit shorthanded when it faces the Buckeyes, but Ohio State has had a couple injury issues of its own. Third-string running back Evan Pryor recently went down for the season with an ACL tear, and multiple defensive backs have been banged up at times during the fall, although Day said he expects his team to be at full strength for the season opener.
Four straight losses to OSU
It’s been a while since Notre Dame beat Ohio State. In fact, you’d have to go back to 1936 to find the last time the Irish claimed a win over the Buckyes on the gridiron.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith thinks the Buckeyes will continue their winning streak against Notre Dame this fall. pic.twitter.com/Tegn6pJGWm— Eleven Warriors (@11W) August 18, 2022
They haven’t had all that many opportunities, having only matched up with the scarlet and gray six times in the programs’ storied histories, but the Fighting Irish have lost each of their past four matchups with Ohio State.
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Most recently, Ohio State topped Notre Dame by 16 in a 44-28 Fiesta Bowl in January 2016. Ten years prior, the two programs also met in the Fiesta Bowl as Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. led the Buckeyes to a 34-20 win over Brady Quinn and company. Ohio State took back-to-back matchups in a home-and home series with Notre Dame in the mid-’90s, running away with multi-score wins in both Columbus and South Bend in 1995 and ‘96.
The 1995 matchup was the first between the two teams in nearly 60 years, with Notre Dame taking the only two previous meetings in 1935 and ‘36.
Gene Smith said recently that he expects the Buckeyes to beat Notre Dame “as we historically have done,” and at least when it comes to that second part, he isn’t wrong.