COLUMBUS, Ohio — Since he was promoted in early December, Marcus Freeman has tried to brush aside the storyline of his return to his alma mater in his genuine coaching debut. When asked if he thought he would get emotional at Ohio Stadium during Notre Dame’s on-field visit Friday, he flatly said, “No.”
And though he was a four-time letter winner at Ohio State, Freeman is right. The No. 5 Irish have more important things to focus on tonight than hearing about their coach’s playing career.
To hear Freeman tell it, he has more important things to do than reminisce, as well. The coach has become borderline monomaniacal of late, focusing only on Notre Dame’s preparation.
“It’s all in the preparation, what have we done and what haven’t we done to make sure this team is prepared,” he said Monday. “I spend countless hours, that’s what I worry about. Are we prepared the right way? …
“I don’t get much time to really reflect. When I have some downtime, it’s this team, it’s the preparation. … If I’m not thinking about it, I might think about my wife and my kids every once in a while to make sure they’re doing okay.”
Might … once in a while.
And right there Freeman may have betrayed a little bit how much this game means to him. Of course, that is only natural.
TIME: 7:30 ET, with kickoff officially slated for 7:44 ET.
The Irish have waited 245 days to wash out the taste of their Fiesta Bowl faceplant, so waiting a few more hours should hardly be a bother. That botched second half has openly motivated Notre Dame throughout the offseason and is a sting Freeman says will stick with him “always.”
If the Irish were to pull off quite the upset tonight, “always” may be an exaggeration.
One day until #NotreDame's season starts … What's your bold prediction for the Irish or a particular player in 2022?
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 2, 2022
TV: ABC has this broadcast, part of its five-day bonanza to kick off the season. A year ago, Notre Dame was also a primetime piece of that stretch, then a Sunday night matchup with Florida State. This will not be quite as much a showcase — two other Power Five vs. Power Five games will be on at the same time, not to mention a few other intriguing matchups — but most of the college football world will tune in to see Freeman’s first voyage into a top-five matchup.
PREVIEW: Ohio State led the country last year with 45.7 points and 561 yards per game. And this offense should be better in 2022, led by three Heisman contenders in quarterback C.J. Stroud, receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson.
Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba said he first took notice of this season's opener against Notre Dame when he was being recruited by the Buckeyes as a junior in high school. "I've been looking forward to this one for a long time."
— Joey Kaufman (@joeyrkaufman) August 31, 2022
The Buckeyes fell short of the Playoff in 2021 because they could be gashed on the ground by a physical running game, something Minnesota, Oregon, Michigan and Utah all enjoyed immensely. Thus, head coach Ryan Day hired defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State.
The question for No. 2 Ohio State well beyond tonight will be how quickly Knowles can fix the defense. Shutting down Notre Dame for a night will not be enough evidence of a title-caliber unit, partly because the Irish are so short-handed offensively.
Fifth-year left guard and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson is questionable to play thanks to a sprained foot. Without him, Notre Dame will plug in either sophomore Rocco Spindler or senior Andrew Kristofic. Either one could prove quite capable, but the season opener in front of 105,000 opposing fans is not the ideal time to lose a four-year starting lineman and preseason All-American.
Sophomore running back Logan Diggs suffered a labrum injury in mid-April, and Freeman says he is fully healthy, but such a quick recovery will need to be seen to be believed. Fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins suffered a Lisfranc injury in mid-March, and the rest of the previous sentence applies here, as well. Without sixth-year receiver Avery Davis, a torn ACL costing him the season and likely ending his collegiate career, Notre Dame is down to five recruited scholarship receivers, plus Wilkins if healthy.
And throwing to them will be a first-time starter who has thrown 35 career passes, sophomore Tyler Buchner. In fact, between Buchner and junior Drew Pyne’s 33 career pass attempts, the Irish return the fifth-fewest passing attempts among FBS programs.
#CollegeFootball programs w/the fewest returning attempted QB passes: Colorado State (2), Ball State (34), Kent State (38), Iowa State (43) and Notre Dame (68)
— Jeff Grant (@JeffGrantSports) August 29, 2022
That is far from the overwhelming dominance presented by three Heisman contenders on the opposite sideline.
PREDICTION: Hence, Ohio State remains favored by 16 points, as of Friday turning into Saturday in Columbus. With a combined points total Over/Under of 59.0, per PointsBet, the suggestion is a 38-21 result to the Buckeyes’ benefit.
To put that kind of spread into Irish context, Notre Dame was an 18.5-point underdog against Alabama in the 2020 Playoff semifinal (lost by 17) and a 16-point underdog at Georgia in 2019 (lost by six). Given the Irish have remained relatively consistent across those years, winning 10-plus games in five consecutive seasons and reaching two Playoffs, it is fair to quickly lump Ohio State in with those Playoff-caliber teams.
Those two games also illustrate the two ways this contest may play out, one to Notre Dame’s benefit and one making a loss by fewer than 17 unlikely.
At Georgia, the Irish took an early 7-0 lead and led 10-7 after the first quarter. Though only 15 minutes into the game, Notre Dame had made each remaining drive more important for the Dawgs, and they thus became more deliberate. The Irish trailed only 13-10 at halftime, very much in the game.
Against Alabama, Notre Dame quickly fell behind 14-0 and trailed 21-7 at the half. Suddenly each drive was exceedingly important for the Irish, and they thus became a bit more desperate. While Notre Dame covered the spread, it never threatened in the game.
#NotreDame wins the coin toss, defers.
Irish 5-and-out, running on four plays.
Marvin Harrison Jr. touchdown.
Trailing 14-0, ND gets away from the run, needs the best game of Tyler Buchner's coming career to keep up with Ohio State.https://t.co/RaYVlVgNJj
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 30, 2022
Any Irish hopes tonight will be established early. Keeping Ohio State within one possession will shorten the game. A first-quarter Notre Dame touchdown will pressure the Buckeyes to be slightly more conservative so as to lessen broad risks.
That may all seem obvious. “Duh, scoring a touchdown is good. Great analysis, Douglas.” But the point is to remind how vital an early-game script can be, something Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has often excelled at, though he now has to adapt to a new, inexperienced quarterback. The biggest key to Notre Dame’s success tonight may be how well rehearsed its first 15 plays are, as they will establish the game state that unfolds.
Unfortunately for the Irish, the Buckeyes’ superior, explosive talent will eventually rule the day. There is little to be done against three Heisman contenders unless you are trotting out All-Americans at every level of the defense, and Notre Dame is lacking anyone earning that consideration at linebacker, at least in the preseason.
Ohio State 38, Notre Dame 24
ONE MORE DYNAMIC TO CONSIDER
Just like Notre Dame, Ohio State replaced its artificial turf this summer. Ohio Stadium first installed artificial turf in 2007. The initial headlines about this replacement focused on a slightly different design on the field, but now that it is down, Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day has found the functional change to be a perk, as well. The new turf is faster.
While the Irish have some speedsters — junior running back Chris Tyree and fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy come to mind — they do not have the overwhelming amount of skill-position talent that Ohio State enjoys, which should best capitalize on that speedy surface.
Speaking on his weekly radio show on @971thefan, Ryan Day described the new field turf at Ohio Stadium as a "fast track."
He said the Buckeyes have practiced about four or five times on surface.
"It's a fast field. It's nice, and the guys really like it."
— Joey Kaufman (@joeyrkaufman) September 1, 2022
INSIDE THE IRISH
— 40 Predictions for Notre Dame’s 2022, from Ohio State to USC, from Michael Mayer to Isaiah Foskey
— Things To Learn: ND hopes to shorten game at Ohio State by “establishing the run”
— Marcus Freeman focused more on Notre Dame’s preparation than on any motivation or recruiting
— And In That Corner … The No. 2 Buckeyes begin their title chase against No. 5 Notre Dame
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ohio State matchup aside, most foes open the season with patsies
— Marcus Freeman bucked absurd conventions in naming Tyler Buchner as starting QB
— Notre Dame heads to Ohio State an underdog, but near full-health and with an emphasis on the run game
— Tim Brown: Freeman could change coaching
— How to watch Notre Dame vs Ohio State and the Irish all season: TV, Peacock info for 2022
— Notre Dame knows defensive depth will be tested at Ohio State
— Much more than luck leads Notre Dame safety Brandon Joseph to the football
— The pressure is on at Ohio State. That’s just how Ryan Day likes it
— Notre Dame odds, predictions and betting preview in 2022
— C.J. Stroud gives $500 Express gift cards to entire OSU team to buy game day suits
— Inside the scheduling of the first Ohio State-Notre Dame regular season game in decades
— Need-to-know rule changes heading into the 2022 season