Three Key Matchups in Ohio State’s Season Opener Against Notre Dame

By Griffin Strom on September 1, 2022 at 8:35 am
Kourt Williams, Michael Mayer
Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch; Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State enters its first game of the season as a three-score favorite over the No. 5 team in the country.

But make no mistake; given the inherent unknowns at the start of any college football campaign, there’s plenty of danger for the Buckeyes as they host the Marcus Freeman-led Fighting Irish at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Horseshoe.

Notre Dame has appeared in the College Football Playoff in two of the past four seasons, and this year the Irish have four preseason AP All-Americans on their roster – just one fewer than the second-ranked Buckeyes.

Which matchups could spell trouble – or prove most vital to a resounding win – for Ohio State this weekend? Eleven Warriors explores three such battles we expect to be crucial to the end result of Saturday’s high-profile primetime contest in Columbus.

ND TE Michael Mayer vs. Ohio State LBs and safeties

The old adage that the tight end is a quarterback’s best friend should go double for this game, given Notre Dame signal-caller Tyler Buchner’s inexperience under center and the pedigree possessed by third-year tight end Michael Mayer.

A five-star prospect in the 2020 class, Mayer has lived up to the billing thus far in South Bend. Mayer had 23 more receptions than the next-best Fighting Irish player last season (71) and finished the year tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (seven) and second in receiving yards (840). Mayer was voted a second-team preseason AP All-American in the leadup to the season, and Buckeye defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said Ohio State has been scheming for him specifically.

“You have to mix it up. You have to blend in different coverages and people who are on him coming from different directions,” Knowles said. “He's an excellent player, he's an NFL player, he has that ability to lean into the coverage, find the open spot. So it is about knowing where he is at all times and making sure that we're changing it up enough to keep him off-balance. 

“These guys have a great tight end so we need to make sure we have a gameplan for it.”

After Mayer, Notre Dame’s second- and third-leading pass catchers from last year (in terms of receptions) left the program, and veteran receiver Avery Davis – third in receiving yards among Irish players last year – is out for the year with an injury. That means Mayer figures to be even more important for Buchner and the Irish offense to start the season.

The Buckeyes are likely to throw several bodies at Mayer throughout the course of the game, if Knowles’ insight is any indication, but one player in Ohio State’s defensive backfield seems particularly well-suited for the matchup. Kourt Williams, a linebacker out of high school who has transitioned to the bandit safety role in Knowles’ defense, might have the perfect blend of size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and speed to give Mayer some trouble.

Williams has repped as the Buckeyes’ second-string bandit behind Josh Proctor for much of the preseason, but could be utilized more prominently in this matchup.

Fourth-year safety Ronnie Hickman said Mayer has a skill set that could cause problems for the Buckeyes, but said stopping him has been an emphasis in preparation for the season opener.

“I think nowadays in college football, tight ends are becoming a lot more athletic, you're starting to see tight ends who can really run more routes in the route tree and just cause us a little bit of problems, matchup problems for linebackers, so to say,” Hickman said. “But just the way he gets open at the top of his routes and like I said earlier, his offense does a great job of scheming him to get open with certain looks and hiding him and stuff like that. So we've just been drilling that in our meetings and going over that in practice.”

ND DE Isaiah Foskey vs. Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones

Unfortunately for Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr., his first game as the Buckeyes’ starting left tackle will come against one of the top pass rushers in the nation.

A first-team preseason AP All-American, Isaiah Foskey racked up 11 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles a year ago. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Foskey has the ability to throw a wrench in the plans of Ryan Day, C.J. Stroud and the Buckeye pass attack unless Johnson and starting right tackle Dawand Jones bring their A-game on Saturday.

“He's a great player, a generational type of player."– Paris Johnson on Isaiah Foskey

Johnson showered Foskey in plenty of praise on Tuesday, but also said practicing against the likes of J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Zach Harrison and the top Buckeye defensive ends has given him plenty of preparation for what he’ll face against the Fighting Irish. 

“He's a great player, a generational type of player. But I mean, I feel like the type of guy that he is, I feel like we have a lot of guys like him in this building here,” Johnson said. “So I feel like I'm blessed to play for a program that has the same type of talent and ability across the board. So I feel like we have the best preparation here. That's why I came here, I want to go against the best people every week. But I feel like it should be harder in practice, too,  with the type of people we have in this locker room.”

Ohio State finished 2021 tied for 14th in the country with 17 sacks allowed on the season. But in last year’s loss to Michigan, the Buckeyes allowed four sacks between elite pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo alone, and Foskey will bring a comparable skill set into the season opener.

Jones is a returning starter and potential early-round draft pick next spring, but although Johnson was a five-star tackle out of high school, he’ll make his first start at the position on Saturday. A potential first-round draft pick in his own right, Johnson said the beginning of his transition from guard saw some struggles in the spring, but he believes he’s ironed them out ahead of his third year at Ohio State.

Day said the Buckeyes will be acutely aware of Foskey’s position on the field come Saturday, and there’s little doubt that limiting his impact on the offense will be key for Ohio State.

“Foskey is a tremendous player, very athletic, projected first-rounder,” Day said. “So it's gonna be a huge challenge for him and for Dawand in this game, and we got to know exactly where he is at all times.”

ND QB Tyler Buchner vs. OSU defensive line

Last year it was Ohio State that took a first-time starting quarterback on the road for a tough primetime matchup in the season opener. This year the Buckeyes are on the opposite end of that equation, as Buchner and the Notre Dame offense will have to contend with an Ohio State defensive line that carries a considerable amount of hype into the first game of the season.

Knowles seems to be less concerned with his front four than he is with any position group on his defense, and Hickman said the unit – which returns many of its top performers from last season – has a newfound edge to it in 2022.

“I think that it's kind of a wild card. You know, you don't know what to expect as much and you really gotta be ready for everything.”– Jim Knowles on facing a first-time starting QB

“Just seeing how well our D-line has played during camp and sitting in those meeting rooms and watching them go to work and stuff like that, it looks different, it feels different. … Just seeing how those guys handled the line up front, how they're moving and showing different looks to the offense is something that I'm thankful for as a guy in the secondary,” Hickman said. “I just can't wait to see what those guys do.”

A four-star, top-75 freshman a year ago, Buchner attempted just 35 passes for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three picks in 2021. That’s more experience than Stroud had entering last season, but Buchner should be facing a much tougher test given the talent on the Ohio State defensive line.

For Knowles, there isn’t much college film on Buchner to break down, and he said he stopped short of looking at any of the California native’s high school tape. Knowles said Buchner’s level of play will be something of an unknown entering the game, but that the Buckeyes will be ready nonetheless.

“I don't go back to high school. But he's played some. So we've scouted him like you would and done our due diligence,” Knowles said. “But it is a first game. So really, it comes back to your training because you have to be ready for everything and you have to be able to adjust.”

“I think that it's kind of a wild card. You know, you don't know what to expect as much and you really gotta be ready for everything.”

Buchner’s ability to run the ball will only add to the possibilities for Ohio State. With 46 rushing attempts for 336 yards and three scores last season, Buchner ran the ball more than he passed it for the Irish.

Even outside of his own penchant for rushing the ball, Hickman said Notre Dame may rely on its ground game in general while Buchner settles in at Ohio Stadium. But if Tuimoloau, Sawyer, Harrison and the Buckeyes’ defensive tackles can disrupt his rhythm right out of the gates, it will only mean good things for Ohio State’s chances overall.

“I think generally for a quarterback who doesn't have as much experience, they're definitely gonna try to establish the run game first. And we're prepared for that,” Hickman said. “I'm prepared for anything else they try to throw at us, but that's definitely something that we've been working on.”

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