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And In That Corner ... The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes begin their title chase against No. 5 Notre Dame

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: C.J. Stroud #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes hands the ball off to TreVeyon Henderson #32 of the Ohio State Buckeyes during the third quarter in the Rose Bowl Game at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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The problem with opening the season with such a highly-touted matchup as the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Notre Dame Irish is, eventually, every talking point from any given reporter gets repeated ad nauseam. To inject some fresh thoughts into this space’s previews of Saturday’s top-five matchup (7:30 ET; ABC), let’s ask an Ohio State beat writer for some insights into the Buckeyes.

Let’s turn to Joey Kaufman of The Columbus Dispatch

DF: My memory isn’t wrong, is it? You were covering USC for the Register for a while, right? How long were you there and when did you jump to the Ohio State beat?

JK: Your memory is right. I was there at the onset of the Clay Helton era, covering the Trojans from 2016-18. Oddly enough, the last time I was in the L.A. Coliseum was when Notre Dame visited to end the regular season in 2018. USC was fighting for bowl eligibility, trying to spoil the Irish Playoff ambitions, but the crowd was mostly hoping it was Helton’s last game. The disgruntled fanbase even raised money for an airplane that flew around the stadium before kickoff, carrying a banner that asked for Helton to be fired. Pretty sparse crowd too. End of a losing season, plus a renovation that wiped out a section of seats. Pretty weird scene.

If I can dwell on that for a moment on a bit of a tangent, how would you compare and contrast the two programs, big-picture? Emphasis on the big picture and not just on that odd 2018 scene I best remember for the construction trailers serving as a temporary press box.

You see the ripple effects of their conference’s TV contracts. The gap in resources is noticeable. When Helton would make in-home recruiting visits out of state, he flew on Allegiant. That isn’t happening with Ryan Day.

That gulf in the payouts for Big Ten and Pac-12 teams shows up across the board from the size of support staffs and player personnel departments. Ohio State gets a lot of help from people in off-field roles. As an example: Day and Mark Pantoni, the program’s recruiting czar, hired a former NFL scout last year to be a college scouting coordinator and track guys in the portal.

Real big picture, the local interest is much different. Sports talk radio in Columbus is always fixated on the Buckeyes, while ‘SC is largely ignored on the radio waves in L.A.

You chose a good time to get in on Ohio State work, not that there’s been a bad time since … ever. The Buckeyes went 21-3 in 1933-35? Huh. Things I didn’t know. Anyway, … Ohio State was a Playoff team in 2000 that kept things from going stale last year by losing twice on the way to a mere Rose Bowl win. I phrase that intentionally because I am sure that is how some Buckeyes fans have felt this offseason. What has the vibe been around the Ohio State program, externally?

The mood among the fanbase has changed, for sure. Ryan Day enjoyed a bit of a honeymoon period over his first two seasons at the helm. The Buckeyes were undefeated in the regular season in 2019 and 2020. Then … well, last year happened. Beyond the obvious of losing to Michigan for the first time in a decade, some anxiety has set in over Day’s handling of the defense. They’ve been average on that side of the ball in three out of the last four years (2018 was Urban Meyer’s final season). I think most fans want to see things stabilize for fear of not capitalizing on this run of great quarterbacks.

Internally, I have to think losing to Michigan was enough to light a fire under the Buckeyes, and they know better than anyone they may have a championship-caliber roster this season. That starts with three Heisman contenders in quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Jaxson Smith-Njigba. Some Irish fans remain skeptical the Ohio State offense will be as good as I have suggested. What do you expect from the Buckeyes offense in 2022?

They were the nation’s highest-scoring offense in the land last fall, and they should be better. This is the rare opportunity for Day to work in consecutive seasons with the same starting quarterback, and they’re still loaded with skill position talent. But more than anything, they have obvious room for improvement. The flaw of their offense in 2021 was inefficiency in the red zone. They were No. 45 in the FBS in red-zone touchdown percentage. Too many drives stalled inside the 20-yard. No team since Baylor and Florida State in 2013 has averaged 50 points or more in a season, and it feels like they’ll have a chance to do that.

This question needs to be asked specifically, since Notre Dame’s defensive line is such a strength: How good is Ohio State’s offensive line?

There is continuity. Three of the five starters from last season are back, but Paris Johnson has returned to left tackle after being at right guard. Now he gets to block Isaiah Foskey. The issue a year ago was in the interior. The line featured four natural tackles. Thayer Munford and Johnson were at the guard spots, and it was less than ideal in short-yardage situations where pad level becomes more important. It didn’t help the running game. Left guard Donovan Jackson and right guard Matt Jones are more of the typical size for those spots. In general, the Buckeyes have protected the quarterback well over the years. Keep in mind they have a new offensive line coach in Justin Frye, who had been the offensive coordinator at UCLA and a part of coaching staffs with Day at Boston College and Temple.

The defensive conversation should begin with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, coming from Oklahoma State, a defense the Irish recently struggled against when it mattered most. When Ohio State’s defense has been at its best, it enjoyed the likes of a Bosa brother or Chase Young wrecking offensive plans. I don’t see such a talent on this roster. Am I missing someone? Or how will Knowles create havoc with good but arguably not great players along his defensive front?

No one has proven themselves to be of the caliber of either Bosa or Young, but sophomore defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer do fit the same recruiting profile. They were the fourth and fifth-best overall prospects in the 2021 class. But they’re different types of players. Tuimoloau is big enough that he could probably play tackle if he wanted to add the weight, and Sawyer has been described as finesse. More than anything, though, I expect Knowles to be creative with dialing up the pressure and presenting a lot of different looks to confuse Tyler Buchner. They’re going to dress up stuff.

That defense should need to be only so good this season, given how explosive the offense will be. How far do you see this team going? A Big Ten title seems assured. Have you booked flights to Atlanta and/or Phoenix yet for the Playoff semifinal?

The feeling is that Ohio State is on a collision course to meet Alabama in the national championship game. But this program’s history is littered with woulda-shoulda-coulda seasons, teams that had the promise to win it all but were derailed by an inexplicable late-season loss. Often to Michigan or Michigan State. This was the ‘90s, more or less. Even with that context, it does feel like a special season is on the horizon.

What do you expect on Saturday night? I have no doubt it will be a full stadium to kick off the 100th year in the Horseshoe, and I have no doubt Smith-Njigba will score an early touchdown. But beyond that, with the Buckeyes favored by 17.0 points, how do you foresee the night playing out?

I won’t go as far as to say Ohio State runs away with things or turns the game into a drubbing, but I would be surprised to see a tight one in the fourth quarter. The four teams that have beaten the Buckeyes since Day took over have averaged 39.5 points, and Notre Dame seems to lack the weapons on offense to put up the 40 points it’ll probably take to topple the Buckeyes. Maybe if the right ball control approach is effective, which is what Michigan did not too long ago. But I don’t see it. And most of all, I think Ohio State is eager to make a statement.

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