Ohio State hosts Notre Dame in a marquee showdown between top-five teams in Week 1 of the 2022 college football season. Considering all of the program history, fantastic uniforms and brand appeal, it doesn’t get much better than the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish in Columbus to open the year. However, if the oddsmakers have it nailed correctly, the game might end up sounding better than the actual matchup is on paper, with Ohio State favored by just over two touchdowns.
Saturday night marks a homecoming of sorts for new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman. The first-year coach played his college ball in Columbus from 2004-08 and later worked as a graduate assistant with the program in ’10. Freeman was hired as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in ’21 after a successful stint at Cincinnati and was promoted to head coach after Brian Kelly left for LSU. He guided the Fighting Irish in a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, but this marks his first full year on the sidelines in South Bend. Notre Dame returns 12 starters from a team that went 11-2 last season and was trending up at the end of ’21 with wins in seven out of its last eight matchups.
Although Ohio State went 11-2 and captured the Rose Bowl trophy last year, the 2021 season was a mild disappointment after it lost to rival Michigan, failed to win the Big Ten title, and did not make the CFB Playoff. Continuity wasn’t an option, as coach Ryan Day made big changes in an effort to get the Buckeyes back to the top of the Big Ten. An underachieving defense is under the direction of a new coordinator (Jim Knowles), and the offensive line underwent a change with Justin Frye now in charge. With 11 starters back, a Big Ten title and a trip to the College Football Playoff is the expectation.
Notre Dame and Ohio State have met six previous times, with the Buckeyes holding a 4-2 series edge. All four of Ohio State’s wins have come by at least 13 points, including a 16-point victory in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.
No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Ohio State
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Although Notre Dame’s offseason was full of change, Freeman managed to keep coordinator Tommy Rees in South Bend, which is good news for an offense that seemed to be finding its stride late in the season. The Fighting Irish averaged 40.5 points in their November contests and posted 35 in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.
Of course, the offense doesn’t return solely intact, and Rees will have his hands full trying to build a game plan for new quarterback Tyler Buchner in one of the toughest road environments in the nation. Jack Coan threw for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns as Notre Dame’s starter last year, while Buchner saw snaps in 10 games and threw for 298 yards and three scores and added 336 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Buchner has not attempted more than 14 passes in a game and is throwing to a receiving corps with question marks. Avery Davis was lost for the year with a torn ACL in fall practice, leaving Braden Lenzy (32 catches), Lorenzo Styles (24), and Joe Wilkins Jr. (four) as top targets on the outside. Tight end Michael Mayer is one of the nation’s best, but the receivers have to step up and make plays to keep Ohio State from focusing too much attention on the middle of the field.
The offensive line should be among the best in college football, and despite losing running back Kyren Williams to the NFL, Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs and Audric Estime are ready to handle the bulk of the workload in the backfield. And with Buchner’s ability to make plays on the ground, Notre Dame’s best shot at keeping this game close into the fourth quarter is to control the pace and flow of the game with the run and play keep-away from Ohio State’s high-powered offense.
The Buckeyes are hungry to get back on track on defense after a couple of disappointing seasons. Last year, Ohio State allowed 22.8 points a game, finished sixth in the Big Ten in rush defense and ranked ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Knowles steadily built Oklahoma State into one of the nation’s top groups, as the Cowboys allowed only 18.1 points and 297.9 a game last year. This unit isn’t lacking for talent, so a quick turnaround is within reach. The front is anchored by rising stars Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau, while cornerback Denzel Burke and safety Ronnie Hickman are candidates for All-America honors.
In its two losses in 2021, Ohio State allowed 7.2 yards per carry. Notre Dame’s standout line and backfield will test this group right away, but if the Buckeyes put Buchner in third-and-long all night, that’s a winning formula for Knowles’ group.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Explosive, dynamic and hard to stop. That’s the best way to describe Ohio State’s offense going into the 2022 season opener. Behind quarterback C.J. Stroud and a deep group of receivers, Day guided this unit to 45.7 points a game and 7.96 yards per play in ’21. The Buckeyes scored at least 40 points in nine of their 13 contests and generated 25 plays of 40-plus yards last fall.
After a breakout year in his first season as the starter in Columbus, Stroud leads preseason odds as the Heisman Trophy favorite and is poised for another monster year at the helm. He will fire plenty of targets in the direction of Jaxon Smith-Njigba (95 catches for 1,606 yards in ’21), and there are new weapons waiting to come online in the offense, including Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming to replace Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
By air isn’t the only way for Ohio State’s offense to harm Notre Dame’s defense. Running back TreVeyon Henderson (6.8 yards per carry) exploded onto the scene as a true freshman in ’21 and ran for 1,255 yards and 15 scores. Miyan Williams (508 yards on 71 carries) will spell Henderson as needed. New line coach Justin Frye was tasked with getting the most out of a line that has been uneven at times, but the pieces are in place for this unit to potentially be the best in college football. Tackles Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. form an opposing pair of bookends on the edge, and center Luke Wypler should push for All-America honors.
The trenches might be the best place for Notre Dame to find a way to slow down Ohio State’s high-powered offense. End Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks) and tackle Jayson Ademilola (six tackles for a loss) anchor a strong front capable of creating disruption at the point of attack and slowing down Ohio State’s ground game (135.3 rushing yards a contest). Can Foskey and the rest of the Fighting Irish front get pressure on Stroud to prevent big plays downfield? Freeman and coordinator Al Golden don’t have a ton of question marks about the defense, but depth and overall talent at cornerback are concerns. If Stroud has too much time to throw, Notre Dame’s secondary will have its hands full.
On paper, Notre Dame playing at Ohio State is a must-see matchup. However, the Buckeyes are a 17-point favorite for a reason. Day’s team simply has too much firepower with Stroud, Henderson, Smith-Njigba and a few rising stars in the receiving corps that presents many challenges for the Fighting Irish defense. The best chance for a Notre Dame upset looks a lot like how Ohio State lost in 2021: A physical approach on both lines of scrimmage that gets to the quarterback on defense and controls the pace (and limits the Buckeyes’ offensive possessions) with drives featuring the run on offense. The Fighting Irish should be a top-10 team in Freeman’s debut season. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the gap between this team and Ohio State — the No. 2 team in the nation behind Alabama — is very wide.