SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The last time Ohio State played, J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott combined to rush 49 times for 353 yards and score five touchdowns in a 42-13 blood-letting against rival Michigan. It was a reminder that, despite missing out on the College Football Playoff, Ohio State still was capable of playing like one of the nation’s best teams on a given Saturday.
Barrett and Elliott are the twin engines that power an efficient Buckeyes’ offense, one that averaged five touchdowns a game and ranks 14th in S&P+. The pair combined for over 2,000 yards and averaged 6.38 yards per carry — and it’s not a coincidence Ohio State lost its only game of the season when Barrett and Elliott combined for only 77 yards on 27 carries (2.85 yards per carry).
The problem for opponents is that focusing on one — as Notre Dame has done with opposing “game-wreckers” like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — can leave a defense woefully exposed.
“I don’t think you can key on just one thing or you risk putting yourself in jeopardy of missing other things,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “It’s kind of a matter of doing your job, counting on the other guys around you to do theirs, trusting the scheme."
The best way to crack Ohio State’s offense is to force Barrett into passing downs — so those third-and-five or more or second-and-long situations where a throw is necessary. This offense is still good in those spots (26th in S&P+) but isn’t as effective as it is when the threat of the run exists.
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Plus, the threat of having two players in the backfield who are elite runners presents a difficult challenge for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to figure out. Linebacker Jaylon Smith said he and his defensive teammates have watched film of Boston College and Wake Forest to prep for Ohio State, and while those offenses may be similar in scheme to the Buckeyes, they’re the two worst Notre Dame faced this fall.
“When the quarterback becomes a runner, the numbers don’t work for assignment defense,” VanGorder said. “So you’ve got to have players win one-on-one battles and tearing off, making plays, and that’s the way it is when the quarterback becomes involved in the run game. It’s easy to outnumber the run game relative to just a running back, but when you involve a quarterback—and that’s why all these offenses are so heavy in the red zone with the quarterback, because the numbers work better for them. I think it’s a wise thing for them, and it’s difficult on defense.”
This is where getting nose guard Jarron Jones back, even if it’s only for 10-20 snaps, could be important for Notre Dame. Jones’ ability to soak up double teams and push his way into the backfield was missed during the regular season, even though Notre Dame’s defensive line was its best unit.
Helping Barrett and Elliott’s case is one of the best offensive lines in college football led by All-American left tackle Taylor Decker. Ohio State’s offensive line does its job — defined in this by allowing rushers to gain at least five yards — on 46.8 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, the best rate among FBS teams. While Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara all enjoyed varying levels of success this season, this is a better unit with Jones in the middle of it.
“We gotta get him in the game, see how he feels, how he looks,” VanGorder said. “He’s not 100 percent.”
But whether it’s Jones, Jerry Tillery or Daniel Cage in at nose guard, Notre Dame will need consistent push from its defensive line and solid play from its linebackers, as well as fewer mental errors from a mistake-prone secondary. Because if Notre Dame can’t muzzle Barrett and Elliott, it’ll be an awfully long afternoon in Arizona.