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Notre Dame heads to Ohio State an underdog, but near full-health and with an emphasis on the run game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 23: Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman looks on as he takes the field in action during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football Game on April 23, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If losing to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl will stick with Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman as long as he expects — “It’s always going to be there.” — then the stakes of facing his alma mater in the first game of his first season as the Irish head coach may be higher than anyone has realized.

When informed No. 5 Notre Dame is a 17.5-point underdog heading to No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday (7:30 ET; ABC), Freeman jokingly made note of it. That line obviously suggests the Irish have their work cut out for them in what should be genuinely considered Freeman’s debut, simply acknowledging the abbreviated and unexpected nature of taking over a program before a bowl game.

Freeman said that work will start with stopping the Buckeyes’ run game, even though Ohio State boasts a Heisman frontrunner at quarterback in C.J. Stroud and arguably the best receiver in the country in Jaxson Smith-Njigba.

“If you don’t stop the run, they’re running all day,” he said Monday. “The ability to stop the run is most important.

“We know they’re very talented throwing the ball, but it’s the mindset. If you can’t stop the run, they can throw it, they can run it, they can do whatever they want to do. You have to be able to stop the run.”

The same logic will apply to the Irish offense, not just against the national championship contender Buckeyes, but also all season.

“We have to have a mindset that we want to be able to establish the run game offensively with the thought that having a run game offensively opens up so many different options in terms of the pass game, in terms of other things offensively,” Freeman said. “We have to have the ability to establish the run game.”

Establishing Notre Dame’s run game this week may or may not yet include fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson. Freeman said Patterson is “still questionable” after suffering a sprained foot less than two weeks ago.

“Expect him to come out this week in practice and we’ll see as we get closer to game time where he’ll be,” Freeman said.

On the released depth chart — hardly a gospel — Irish sophomore Rocco Spindler was listed as Patterson’s backup.

The only other injury addressed by Freeman on Monday was senior linebacker Marist Liufau’s recovery from a dislocated ankle 53 weeks ago. Notre Dame intentionally held back Liufau at points this preseason, mostly to make sure his conditioning was keeping up with his return. Freeman no longer expects any limitations on the weakside linebacker.

Sixth-year receiver Avery Davis is out for the season due to his second torn ACL within nine months, but he was still named a captain this weekend along with Patterson, fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer, senior linebacker JD Bertrand, senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey and junior tight end Michael Mayer.

The day they learned of Davis’ injury, Freeman had no doubt he would still be a two-time captain this fall.

“When I sat in his house the day he tore his ACL, I knew [being a captain] is what he wanted,” Freeman said. “He’s a leader, and he wants to have the ability to help this team whichever way he can. Him being a captain, him being a voice is a way he can help his team.”

Freeman did not close the door on the thought of Davis pursuing a seventh season of eligibility in 2023, but a statement from Davis two weeks ago suggests he is not looking for that.

“My last moments in game and in practice as a notre dame (sic) football player ended in acl tears,” he wrote on Twitter. “As bad as that is, the hardest part about all of this is the lack of closure granted from it. …

“Although this is not how I wanted it to end by any means, I am extremely grateful for this journey and the years spent here at notre dame.”

Freeman said he is typically more likely to defer if Notre Dame wins the coin toss, opting to have a possible extra position in the second half, but that choice will be discussed among his coaching staff each week.

Freeman has made it a point this preseason to educate his roster about certain Notre Dame traditions. For example, why are the end zones in the Stadium painted with nine angled stripes each? (They are at 42-degree angles pointed toward the Golden Dome, with nine plus nine equaling 18. As in, 1842, the year the University was founded.)

Jim Tressel emphasized similar items when Freeman played at Ohio State.

“We definitely spent time understanding the history, the tradition of the place we’re playing at, of many different things that go along with being at Ohio State,” Freeman said. “To me, it’s an appreciation for what you have and an appreciation for where you get to do it at.

“Does it correlate with winning? I think deep down, maybe it does. When you love what you’re doing and where you’re doing it at, I think you own it. I say all the time, we have to own it, we have to own this as our program, own this as our university. I think you sacrifice a little bit more for it when things get really hard.”

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