COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Notre Dame designed its game plan to try to upset No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night, it did not specifically intend to reduce the number of highlights in the top-five matchup, but that was a natural byproduct of slowing the game down. Fewer plays, with an emphasis on the ground game, would lead to fewer highlights. And the No. 5 Irish (0-1) pushed that approach to the limit in the 21-10 loss, to such an extent that the Buckeyes (1-0) even leaned into chewing the game clock late.
“It’s exactly what we wanted to do,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said after losing to his alma mater. “That was our plan going into the game, be able to control the clock, limit their offensive possessions and run the football.
“That was our mindset for this game. That’s what our keys to victory were, and we executed. It was a 10-7 game until seconds left in the third quarter.”
For a game expected to near 60 total points — think an Ohio State victory to the tune of 38-21 — posting only 17 total points through 44:43 seconds emphasized how well the Irish plan was working.
Time of possession is a fraught statistic, but Notre Dame had the ball for 16:35 of the first half. The Buckeyes had only five first-half possessions and 10 in the entire game. The Irish averaged 3.13 yards per rush through the first three quarters (sacks adjusted), not good enough to dominate a game but enough to keep the clock running. Through halftime, that was slightly better at 3.53 yards per carry — 17 attempts for 60 yards — part of how Notre Dame held a 10-7 lead at the break.
“All of that was part of the plan going into the game,” Irish sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner said. “As the game unfolded, we just stuck to the plan.”
That plan produced few highlights but it also allowed few highlights. Notre Dame lost, but it gave itself a chance to win by approaching the season opener with a conservative, measured approach.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s defensive strength is its front seven, more precisely its defensive line. Depth, experience and talent mesh there. Yet the Irish were pushed around to end the game. In a way every single offensive coaching staff strives for, Ohio State clinched the game both on the scoreboard and on the clock by rushing 10 times for 64 yards on its final 14-play, 95-yard touchdown drive. It picked up three of five first downs via the run. It chewed up seven of the remaining 12 minutes via the run.
The Buckeyes finished the night with 186 yards on 34 carries, but remove that final drive’s punishment, and those tallies fall to 122 yards on 24 attempts, a 5.08 yards per rush average (all sacks adjusted). That is still a ground game supporting a powerful offense, but the 6.4 yards per carry of that final drive was the ground game of the best offense in the country.
“It goes back to execution,” senior linebacker Jack Kiser said. “They were able to run the ball, control the ball, control the time. Go up-tempo. We just couldn’t get off blocks. We were struggling to get the call, get our feet set and get after it. We just have to — that’s on us, and as players we have to be on the same page and execute and at the end of the day, play football.”
Ohio State last night: 21 points, 395 total yards, 5.7 yards per play.
Ohio State's season lows in 2021: 26 points (W at Nebraska), 458 yards (L at Michigan), 5.8 yards per play (Michigan).
Some of that was #NotreDame's game plan, but a lot of it was the Irish defense.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 4, 2022
PLAY OF THE GAME
If Notre Dame had held onto the upset, fifth-year receiver Matt Salerno’s tip-tip-tip-catch in the second quarter would be echoed in Irish lore for a generation. The 31-yard catch on the first play of the quarter converted a third down, probably should have drawn a pass interference flag and pushed Notre Dame deep enough into Ohio State territory to be the clear catalyst for the coming touchdown and 10-7 lead.
“I was juiced,” Buchner said. “He’s a stud on the team, one of our best receivers. He made a huge play. It was huge, led to a scoring drive. I was thankful he came down with it.”
While Buchner and Salerno never again connected Saturday — Buchner, in fact, completed multiple passes to only junior tight end Michael Mayer, who finished with five receptions on 32 yards — that catch from the former walk-on should instill confidence in him from the coaching staff, his quarterback and Irish fans alike.
WHAT A CATCH! @Matthews0520#GoIrish pic.twitter.com/zaaPvUDhnu
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 4, 2022
Buchner finished 10-of-18 for 177 yards, acceptable stats in a vacuum, though a 55.6 percent completion rate is a touch low. Averaging 9.8 yards per pass attempt would be a boon for Notre Dame this season, an unlikely boon, but even if removing Salerno’s acrobatics, Buchner averaged 9.2 yards per pass attempt.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Aside from Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, and he will be the best player in most games this season, the Irish-specific thought should go to Buchner.
Though he fell off drastically after a strong start, finishing the game 2-of-10 for 49 yards after starting 8-for-8 including Salerno’s snag, Buchner comported himself one in his first career collegiate start, his first start at any level in literal years and his first experience in front of a crowd as large as 106,000.
“That’s why we named him the starter,” Freeman said. “I’m pleased with him. The biggest thing I’m pleased with is zero turnovers.
“He got hit a couple times, he hurt his ankle a little bit, and he continued to be tough, continued to run the ball, continued to try and throw the ball where he wanted to throw it.
“He’s going to be a really good football player and a great leader for us as we move forward.”
Taking his first snap tonight, @tylerbuchner becomes the first Chinese-American to start at quarterback for a Power 5 Level football program. pic.twitter.com/APs6SNSQDG
— Notre Dame Football PR Team (@NDFootballPR) September 3, 2022
Buchner added 56 rushing yards on eight carries, though he also took three sacks for a loss of 19 yards.
STAT OF THE GAME
Freeman’s turnover note can apply to the entire game. Aside from Mayer dropping the football without a defender’s help and then recovering his own fumble, not a single play the entire night came across on first viewing as a turnover-worthy play. A few passes could have been intercepted, but none necessarily should have been intercepted.
Maybe that was expected from Stroud, who threw only six interceptions on 441 passes last year, but Buchner threw three picks last year on only 35 pass attempts. Cutting that to zero on Saturday gave Notre Dame a chance at the upset.
For the Irish to reach double-digit wins for a sixth-straight season, however, the defense will have to put offenses in peril far more often.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
Postgame comments should not be taken as gospel. Coaches have just finished a long, emotional night. Players doubly so.
But Freeman did let it slip he may have been a bit caught off-guard by the success of Notre Dame’s game plan, and his team doubly so.
“We can’t be surprised when all of a sudden it’s a 10-7 ballgame midway through the third quarter against a really, really good football team,” Freeman said. “Don’t be surprised. That’s got to be the expectation for this group. Now we have to learn to finish, don’t hold on.
“I felt that a little bit in me, as a coach. We’re holding on, it’s 10-7, midway through the third. We have to continue to attack and continue to execute.”