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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ohio State’s offense projects to match the best of the century

Fighting Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman tells Dan Patrick about his NFL draft experience, how he feels matching up against Ohio State in Notre Dame's first game of the season and more.

The 99th season of Ohio Stadium opened with a shocking loss that cost Ohio State most of its hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame hopes to replicate that reality to begin The Horseshoe’s 100th season in less than three weeks.

The No. 5 Irish will have an uphill climb to top No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 3. Sportsbooks favor the Buckeyes by more than two touchdowns, something that will be a common theme in Ryan Day’s fourth season.

Ohio State losing in September last year was itself a shock, never mind that the Buckeyes were favored by two touchdowns against Oregon. Under Day, the earliest Ohio State had lost in the previous two seasons was a Playoff semifinal. That kind of run was always likely to come to an end, but it may boot up again quickly in 2022.

Not much more needs to be said about the Buckeyes’ 2021. Horrendous rush defense and situational struggles on offense cost Ohio State against Oregon and then again in the regular-season finale against Michigan.

As much as has been made about the Buckeyes’ wretched rush defense, it was excellent for most of the season. In the first two games of the year, Ohio State gave up 913 total yards with 472 of them on the ground. In the last two games of its season, Michigan and Utah exceeded those marks with 950 total yards and 523 yards rushing.

In their other nine games, the Buckeyes gave up 74 rushing yards per game.

Nonetheless, that inauspicious start — though Minnesota’s rushing offense did not receive enough acclaim last year and may impress many again this season — cost Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs his job, demoted in September and now the cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator at Cincinnati, where he previously worked under Brian Kelly.

With that defense still in disarray, the Buckeyes got into a shootout with Utah in the Rose Bowl. As the Utes turned to a running back to play cornerback against the best receiving corps in the country — and that was not a position change made in the preseason, but during bowl preparations — Ohio State held on for an entertaining 48-45 win to finish 11-2.

Discussing the losses of a team of this caliber — also applicable to Alabama and Georgia, though perhaps no one else in the country — can be misleading, given the talent stockpiles on the sideline.

For example, Ohio State lost two first-round draft picks in receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, yet neither was even the best receiver for the Buckeyes in 2021. Perhaps more impactful, the Buckeyes need to replace first-team All-American left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and right tackle Thayer Munford, a seventh-round pick to the Las Vegas Raiders.

But again, Ohio State has plenty of options to fill those holes. Along the offensive line, it is akin to Notre Dame replacing draft picks. There is always a valid assumption the Irish (and the Buckeyes) have plenty of talent to uncover another great offensive tackle.

That Ohio State ranks No. 23 in returning production this season is unusual for the Buckeyes, given how much talent is typically being sent to the NFL. In that regard, Ohio State is better set than Day may be accustomed to, and that is pretty well set in the first place.

Notre Dame’s best hope to spring an upset will be that the Buckeyes’ offensive line is not yet gelled, even if it is returning three starters and another player with starting experience. Last year’s front gave up only 17 sacks, so no matter what, some drop-off was probably expected.

But junior quarterback CJ Stroud is now a year older and the experience of a full season of starts should help cover for any offensive line hiccups. Stroud threw for 44 touchdowns and just six interceptions last year, so youthful mistakes were clearly never an issue for him.

His favorite target, Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards, highlighted by 15 receptions for 347 yards in the Rose Bowl alone. Stroud is not the distinct Heisman frontrunner mostly because handicappers expect Smith-Njigba to steal some votes from his quarterback.

The same could be said of running back TreVeyon Henderson. Yes, Ohio State’s greatest offensive problem is that it has so many stars, they eat away at each other’s Heisman chances.

That said, the Buckeyes did not inherently trust their run game last year. Some of that may have come from the luxury of having Olave, Wilson and Smith-Njigba running wild, but some of it simply stemmed from playcalling.

If that hesitancy persists, Stroud will still have myriad of receiving options to look for. Smith-Njigba is joined most notably by sophomores Marvin Harrison Jr. (yes, that Marvin Harrison) and Emeka Egbuka. Harrison caught three touchdown passes in that chaotic Rose Bowl.

Day brought in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, so his scheme should be somewhat familiar to Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. While Knowles did not coach the Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl, his scheme persisted, part of why Rees opted to call only 19 rush plays on New Year’s Day, facing the best run defense in the country.

Knowles employed a 4-2-5 alignment at Oklahoma State, but with Ohio State returning all seven of its pertinent linebackers, he has said he will opt for a 4-3 front when offenses are not spreading out the field, something Notre Dame simply does not have the receivers to do, anyway. Even with that seven-man front, he likely will find a home for Oklahoma State transfer safety Tanner McCalister, if for no other reason than the thorough understanding of Knowles’ system that McCalister can bring to the field.

RELATED READING: One week into training camp, Ohio State football has few pressing questions

Among those linebackers, a few names should strike Irish fans as familiar: Liam Eichenberg’s brother Tommy and Shayne Simon’s brother Cody, not to mention freshman safety Sonny Styles, brother of leading Notre Dame receiver Lorenzo.

Ohio State’s offense will determine how far the Buckeyes go. That may seem short-sighted given the defense cost them a couple games last year, but LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020 both showed an offense of a particular caliber can win a national championship on its own.

And Ohio State’s offense may be of that caliber.

Phil Steele’s thorough preseason magazine projects the Buckeyes to throw for 368.9 passing yards per game and score 45.4 points per game. All too often, Steele’s computers end up eerily precise, so those numbers should hold some merit.

To put those numbers in comparison to LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020, the two offenses broadly considered to be the best of the modern era of college football, LSU and Joe Burrow threw for 401.6 yards per game and scored 48.4 points per game; Alabama threw for 358.2 yards per game while scoring 48.5 points per game.

Ohio State could join them in chasing 50 points per game.

Thus, the lowest one can find the Buckeyes ranked heading into the season is No. 3, though one bold AP voter did drop Ohio State all the way to No. 4.

The Buckeyes are not only expected to win every game of their season, they are expected to do so handily.

And that includes against Notre Dame and first-year head coach Marcus Freeman on Sept. 3. PointsBet currently favors Ohio State by 14.5 points; the Irish money line of +450 implies an 18 percent chance of winning. There is every expectation that Freeman’s debut season will start off with a loss against his alma mater.

The Buckeyes have an implied 63 percent chance of making the College Football Playoff, and they trail only Alabama in national championship odds.

Suffice it to say, Ohio State should beat Michigan for the ninth time in their last 10 meetings and 16th time in their last 18 contests and then go on to win its fifth Big Ten championship in the last six years.

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