Only so much can be known before the season opener, even by the head coach. As Marcus Freeman spends every waking moment worrying he has not prepared his team as he should, he knows what he doesn’t know.
No. 5 Notre Dame has faced only itself for weeks. If the offensive line excels, it comes at the cost of added doubt about the defensive line. If the defensive backs dominate, worries about the receivers may fester. Only in facing outside competition, let alone the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes, can tell Freeman exactly what he has on his hands in his debut season as the Irish head coach.
“We’ll see after the game exactly where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are,” Freeman said Monday.
Facing Ohio State (ABC; 7 ET) will shine a bright light on those strengths and weaknesses, maybe the brightest light of the opening weekend. More pertinently, Freeman’s ideal game plan to beat the Buckeyes coincides with proving the Irish strengths or quickly learning the season’s ceiling is nowhere near as high as the last five years.
Freeman opened his week preaching the importance of establishing the run, welcome words to any traditionalist’s ears. To limit the inevitable damage done by Ohio State’s receivers — junior Jaxon Smith-Njigba is widely considered the most dangerous receiver in the country after catching 96 passes for 1,606 yards last year — Notre Dame will want to shorten the game by establishing that run.
This is the exact approach Navy takes every year, though the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack obviously takes it to an extreme. When at a talent disadvantage, the fewer plays there are, the fewer opportunities there are for that disadvantage to be exploited.
“Offensively, you have to be able to take control of the game in terms of holding onto the football, in terms of establishing long drives,” Freeman said. “That’s going to be something we have to do if we want a chance at winning this game.
“You have to limit their offensive possessions. How do you do that? It’s not just defensively, it’s offensively, being able to establish long drives.”
The raves around the sophomore have gained plenty of steam this preseason. Logically, it is fair to wonder if they have gained too much. Tonight will lend some (in)credibility to them.
“He’s going to have more than 10 carries,” Irish running backs coach Deland McCullough said in mid-August. “I can guarantee you that.
“Audric has shown all the competencies and has been very proficient and consistent in everything you want from a high-level running back. Protections, running with speed, running with power, running with an elusiveness, catching the ball, he does everything you need him to do.”
Notre Dame needs Estime to average at least four yards a carry with at least 15-20 carries this weekend, preferably five yards per attempt on more than 20 rushes. Sophomore Logan Diggs may indeed be fully-cleared for contact after suffering a labrum tear in mid-April, but that should first be seen to be believed. Freshman Gi’Bran Payne looks like someone who will contribute this season, but perhaps not this weekend. The Irish have Tyree and Estime.
Just spotted #NotreDame sophomore RB Audric Estime listed with Heisman odds of 500-to-1, and that seems low.
What has to happen this year for Estime to win the Heisman?
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 26, 2022
Freeman cited the common theme of establishing the run game in Ohio State’s two losses last year, to Oregon and Michigan. Indeed, they both broke 250 rushing yards and averaged more than seven yards per carry. Those may be lofty numbers for Notre Dame to reach tonight, particularly now that the Buckeyes have former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles calling their defense, but nearing 200 yards could keep the Irish in contention.
They ran for all of 42 yards against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Of course, Knowles has different personnel on hand and Ohio State has not spent years learning his offense — Freeman spent more time than expected insisting Knowles will have some changes in store for Notre Dame — but it should still be noted that the Irish essentially abandoned the run on New Year’s Day.
Only 19 true rushing attempts was more than Notre Dame attempted at Georgia in 2019, when the Irish openly gave up running the ball even before kickoff, but the Fiesta showing in Freeman’s coaching debut was still the opposite of what he is calling for this weekend.
The one thing Notre Dame did do in that 37-35 fall-from-ahead loss was get out to a strong start, scoring 28 points in the first half. Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has shown adeptness in his opening script a few times, including last year’s opener at Florida State. A fast start tonight will force Buckeyes’ head coach Ryan Day to emphasize capitalizing on each possession, rather than risking a few deep shots and wasting a drive.
“Starting fast has been important for us since I became a head coach, and starting fast in the season has been important to us as we started fall camp,” Freeman said. “You can’t start slow against a team like Ohio State.”
If Notre Dame can cut the total possessions for each team down to single digits as well as score on its first one or two, then the Buckeyes will recognize no possession can be mismanaged. The margin for error will shrink, something that runs counter to the 17-point favorite’s edge.
ON Zeke Correll
For this approach to work, the Irish will need more than Estime’s physicality. Whether fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson plays or not — Freeman deemed the two-time captain “still questionable” with a foot sprain on Thursday — Notre Dame will lean on senior center Zeke Correll.
He may have lost his starting role at left guard halfway through last year, but back in 2020, Correll’s intangibles at center made him a coaching staff preference. Returning to that position, where he can best use what is often described as his “mauler” technique, should help Correll and the Irish.
“He’s shown the ability to make the correct decisions, the ability to execute his assignment vs. multiple different looks we’ve given him as he’s prepared for Ohio State,” Freeman said. “We have the utmost confidence in him. If we didn’t, he wouldn’t be out there with the starting group at center.”
Knowles may lack the individual playmakers of Ohio State’s years past or even from Oklahoma State’s defense last year, but he has some heralded recruits. Furthermore, he relishes disguising his defensive look presnap. Diagnosing and adjusting that will fall to Correll and sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner.
As steady as Buchner has been in every media availability and since being named Notre Dame’s starting quarterback a week into preseason practices, none of that will mean anything after kickoff tonight. All that will matter then is how he can handle that atmosphere.
Freeman can continue to preach about the dimensions of the football field (53 ⅓ yards by 120 yards) and how nothing “outside those white lines” matters during a game or should affect Buchner, but the Milan Miracle was more predicated on preparation and a game plan that shortened the game than it was on a fictional coach’s ploys in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Bobby Plump’s game-winning jumper is famous for a reason, and it was so long before Jimmy Chitwood came to the screen, but it is too often forgotten what preceded that buzzer beater. Plump spent four minutes of the fourth quarter holding the ball, a feat only Dean Smith would have enjoyed.
Norman Dale’s speech didn’t win the Indiana state championship. Marvin Wood’s preparation did. Thus Freeman’s constant worrying, even if he has slipped into a Gene Hackman impersonation a couple times the last few weeks.
“That to me is the focus, how do you make sure you can keep it contained and focus on the things that matter? That’s the preparation. Preparation is what matters. That’s what we can control from now until Saturday, how we prepare.”