Ohio State Notre Dame preview 2022

Buckeye, Irish Defenses About To Face New, Stiffer Tests

COLUMBUS — When Ohio State and Notre Dame take the field against each other in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, two of the nation’s best defenses will be squaring off. That is, if you believe the statistics that have been acquired against a handful of relatively innocuous offenses so far this season.

Both teams have victories against FCS opponents this season, and neither team has faced an offense ranked among the top 60 offenses nationally among FBS teams.

In terms of yards per game, Notre Dame’s FBS opponents rank No. 61, No. 103, and No. 119 nationally. Ohio State’s FBS opponents rank No. 68 and No. 89, respectively.

There is only so much coaches can learn from defensive performances against offenses like the ones they have seen to this point — unless it concerns fixing issues, which Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was asked about after his defense missed a handful of tackles last week against Central Michigan.

“I think we’ve worked tremendously on tackling,” he said. “And there’s an element of safety that you can’t tackle live in practice. You can do drills and we’ll do drills. The reality is we missed I think three tackles on the one drive that they scored a touchdown. Really for the rest of the game, they did a good job. I think we had one or two missed tackles after that, but the three missed tackles on the one drive that leads to a touchdown is what you can’t have. And they’re good too, right? You’re gonna miss tackles. That’s part of the game of football. But you have to continue to show them how to improve at that and really work on it in practice without going live.”

With those missed tackles, the Irish still only allowed 268 yards of total offense and 17 points. Those numbers will generally win you a game, especially against lesser competition.

One number that Freeman isn’t particularly concerned about is quarterback sacks. The Irish only have six sacks in four games this year, but they rank No. 1 in pass efficiency defense, which is the number that he cares about more.

“Listen, I knew someone’s gonna ask me about it, but sacks, everyone keeps talking about sacks, sacks, sacks,” Freeman said. “I told [defensive coordinator Al] Golden, ‘We’re number one in the country in pass efficiency defense.’ And so that’s the stat I’m worried about. I’m not worried about sacks. The pressure that we’re getting is great. Sacks will come.

“And I don’t want our players overly concerned about sacks because that’s an individual stat. That really doesn’t matter. I want to be number one in pass efficiency defense. I don’t know who’s number one in sacks, but I want to be number one in pass efficiency defense. That’s a great stat. And so, they’ve been working and doing really well. And sacks are a result of a lot of different things. But I was really happy with the way our defense performed in the pass game to limit that offense to what we did. It was really, really good. Pleased to see.”

With Ohio State coming to town this weekend, the Notre Dame defense is going to have plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback. But it will be their secondary that will be tested beyond anything they have seen to this point. So far, the Irish have faced the No. 76, No. 124, and No. 130 passing offenses in the nation, respectively.

The Buckeyes will bring a passing game with the best receivers in the nation and a quarterback who is growing more prolific by the week. Junior receivers Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka are each averaging a touchdown reception per game, and that only tells a portion of the story.

“They’re good players, man,” Freeman said of Harrison and Egbuka. “You just gotta turn on the film. Harrison’s body type, set of skills. He’s fast. He can go up and get the ball. He’s a great route runner. Great hands. Well coached. [Brian] Hartline’s done a great job of developing that wideout room. Year after year, they’ve got first rounders and first rounders. And Egbuka is the same way. He’s, again, a playmaker. More utilized in the slot, dangerous returner. So I could go on and on. Those guys are good football players.”

Subscribe Promo banner

On the other side of the aisle, you have an Ohio State defense that has dominated three overmatched opponents, allowing just 20 points on the season.

They will be facing a Notre Dame starting quarterback in Sam Hartman who has started nearly 50 games in his career. Sure, all but three of those games came while he was at Wake Forest, but experience will always count for something.

While Hartman may have never seen the Buckeyes before, he’s seen almost everything else in his time as a starter. He will bring a level of calm to the Notre Dame offense that can sometimes be hard to find in games like this.

For Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, his job will be to eliminate that calmness, either through straight-up defense, or by dialing up the blitz.

“Such is the dilemma, right?” Knowles said this week when asked about the decision-making progress surrounding the blitz. “I mean, week to week. It really is. And you take it play by play and situation by situation and you want to always have something to change up, keep them off balance. I guess that’s why I work all those hours. If there was an easy answer to that question, I’d be smoking a cigar right now.”

This will be the most complete offense the Buckeyes have seen to this point by far. Hartman gets the publicity, but the Irish offensive line has been labeled one of the best in the nation. They also have a powerful running attack, headlined by Audric Estime, who has rushed for 130.3 yards per game so far this season.

“It’s the running back combined with the offensive line,” Knowles said of Estime’s effectiveness. “The offensive line is talented. The tackles are excellent. And he’s a strong running back. So when you have an offensive line that works well together and they’re physical and they push you to the point of attack, he’s a guy who can get behind that. Strong runner, but also elusive. He can also make the cuts. So I think it’s a real challenge for us to play behind our pads and play downhill because you’re going to have to put your face in the fan.”

Last year’s Notre Dame offense wasn’t much to write home about. And truthfully, most of the letters were probably never even mailed. This year, however, they have an identity, and it’s an identity that the Ohio State defense hasn’t really seen to this point.

“It’s become a running, smash-mouth offense with shots over the top,” Knowles said. “So I think it really fits what they’re doing, and it’s definitely something we have to be prepared for.”

Notre Dame’s ability to throw the play-action into the mix will test the Ohio State safeties in a way that they have yet to see this year. Everybody will need to help out against the Irish running game, but the Buckeye pass defense can’t get fooled and get sucked up into a play fake.

How does Knowles feel about his defense’s ability to hold their water?

“What I’ve seen so far is good. It’s good,” he said. “There’s an understanding of how to be on top. Of how to play those giant crossing routes. You’ve seen some of that show up in a lot of plays that you’re seeing in the NFL. There’s an understanding there, there’s been execution. You’ve got to keep pressing it because it gets more every week against better opponents. It just gets tougher to do.”

The Buckeyes will definitely be facing a better opponent this week, and it only takes one wrong answer to fail the test.

“Yeah, I mean it’s everything right? I mean, it’s a matchup game, you know, so the intensity level increases. But it still always comes back to habits,” Knowles said. “What kind of habits do you have, and your training? But yeah, I mean, it’s different every week and this is certainly a huge test.

Go to discussion...