When Marcus Freeman said Monday that he thought the key to slowing down Ohio State’s offense would be stopping the run, your first reaction might have been to laugh. After all, Ohio State has a Heisman Trophy frontrunner at quarterback and also has a wide receiver who’s widely regarded as the best in the country.
Notre Dame wants to focus on stopping the run? Has he heard of C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba?
Freeman, though, saw what happened in the Buckeyes’ two losses last season.
Against Oregon, Ohio State ran for 128 yards on only 4.1 yards per carry while allowing 269 rushing yards on more than seven yards per carry.
When the Buckeyes played Michigan, that disparity was even worse. Ohio State ran for just 64 yards on 2.1 yards per carry while giving up 297 rushing yards on 7.2 yards per carry. Stroud passed for 484 yards against Oregon and 394 yards against Michigan, but the offense’s struggles in the run game limited them to 28 and 27 points in those losses.
Offensively, Notre Dame will certainly have reason to want to establish the run first and foremost. The Fighting Irish are entering their season opener with a starting quarterback, Tyler Buchner, who has never started a collegiate game before and ran the ball more times than he threw it (46 carries to 35 passing attempts) as a freshman last season. They have one marquee receiving weapon in tight end Michael Mayer, a third-team AP All-American last season, but none of their healthy wide receivers had more than 350 receiving yards in 2021.
Freeman knows it might be more difficult to run the ball against the Buckeyes this year now that Jim Knowles has installed a new defense in Columbus. But that doesn’t change the fact that running the ball effectively will likely be a necessity for Notre Dame to have a chance to win.
“I look at the Oregon game (against Ohio State last year), and Oregon offensively was able to run the ball and do some different things. And I know we're facing a different defense, but still the ability to establish a run game offensively (is key),” Freeman said. “And then you look at the Michigan game, again, it was the ability for Michigan to run the ball. And again, I know we're talking about a different defensive scheme. But the ability to run the ball, the ability to establish a run game, to open up different areas in the pass game, to me is really important.”
Defensively, Freeman knows there’s no easy answer for stopping the Buckeyes. While Stroud was a first-time starting quarterback who had never thrown a collegiate pass at this time a year ago, he firmly established himself as one of college football’s elite passers last season by completing 71.9% of his passes (an Ohio State record) for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Although the Buckeyes no longer have Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, they’re still loaded at wide receiver, as Smith-Njigba will be joined in the starting lineup by some combination of Marvin Harrison Jr. (who had three touchdowns as a first-time starter in last year’s Rose Bowl) and Julian Fleming or Emeka Egbuka (who were both five-star recruits).
All of that said, Freeman believes keeping TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Ohio State’s running game in check is the first priority for the Fighting Irish if they’re going to limit the Buckeyes offensively.
“If you don't stop the run, they'll run it all day long. So the ability to stop the run is most important,” Freeman said. “We know they're very talented in throwing the ball. But it's the mindset. If you can't stop the run, they can throw it, they can run it and do whatever they want to do. You have to be able to stop the run, and then be able to give different looks defensively that obviously, I'm not gonna say we're trying to confuse them but be able to give them different looks in terms of the pass game.”
On paper, Ohio State’s passing offense compared to Notre Dame’s passing offense should be the biggest advantage for either team in Saturday’s game, and that’s why the Buckeyes are favored to win by 17 points. Notre Dame’s passing defense wasn’t great last year either, ranking 63rd nationally with 224.2 passing yards allowed per game, though the Fighting Irish are expected to improve in that regard this year with a new defensive coordinator (Al Golden), an All-American safety transfer from Northwestern (Brandon Joseph) and seven returning starters from last season.
Nonetheless, the Buckeyes know they can’t rely solely on their passing offense going into a game of this magnitude – or any game, for that matter.
“You have to establish the run, it’s very, very important. And that’s something we’ve been working very hard on,” Ryan Day said Tuesday. “It's a point of emphasis for every game that we play, though. We have spent a lot of time on it, but not any more time than we have in the past. I mean, that's where the games are won and lost is up front.”
Notre Dame’s defensive front will likely be one of the best Ohio State faces all season. Fighting Irish defensive tackle Jayden Ademilola certainly thinks so, telling reporters on Tuesday night that he and his fellow defensive linemen think they’re “the toughest, strongest badass motherfuckers in the country.”
For the sake of context and accuracy, heres Ademilolas full quote on the Notre Dame defensive line.— Tyler Horka (@tbhorka) August 31, 2022
Talk about a confident dude. pic.twitter.com/M1jzPP1tuA
On the other side, however, Ohio State’s offensive players are also confident they’ll be able to gain the tough yards on the ground that they struggled to against stronger defenses last season.
“Everybody in the country knows that we can pass the ball. But I feel like a point of emphasis and what we're gonna take pride in this season is our run game,” Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. said Tuesday. “I think we all have the ability and that's why we came here to play, but it's that mental pride of taking pride in the run game.”
“You have to establish the run, it’s very, very important. And that’s something we’ve been working very hard on.”– Ryan Day
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles doesn’t necessarily view it as an advantage for the Buckeyes that Buchner has never started a game before. On the contrary, he says it makes it more difficult to prepare because they can’t know exactly what to anticipate from Notre Dame’s quarterback.
“It's kind of a wild card,” Knowles said. “You don't know what to expect as much and you really gotta be ready for everything.”
Despite that, Knowles is confident his defensive players will be ready – “100% ready,” in his words – for whatever Notre Dame throws at them.
Starting safety Ronnie Hickman feels that way, too. He anticipates the Fighting Irish will look to establish the run game first given Buchner’s inexperience, but he’s confident Ohio State’s defense – starting with the defensive line up front – will be stouter against the run than it was against top competition a year ago.
“Seeing how well our D-line’s played all camp, and sitting in those meeting rooms and watching them go to work and stuff like that, it looks different, it feels different,” Hickman said Tuesday.