COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Hollywood wrote the start of the Marcus Freeman Era at Notre Dame, it would have deemed this script too misleading, too unfulfilling, too wrenching for a typical sports film. The No. 5 Irish led Freeman’s alma mater for much of Saturday night, but the dynamic Ohio State offense finally broke through late in the third quarter to quell the upset bid, 21-10.
Until then, Notre Dame (0-1) had followed the exact script Freeman wrote earlier in the week, though his obviously had a different ending than a second loss in two games as Notre Dame’s head coach.
“There’s no such thing as a moral victory,” he said. “We didn’t execute. … We have to be able to finish when it matters most. That’s ultimately what cost us.”
The 36-year-old, first-time head coach said during the week he wanted the Irish to get off to a fast start. A 54-yard completion on the first snap of the game fit that tone. The father of six said he wanted Notre Dame to slow the game down to minimize the impact of the Buckeyes’ offense. Giving No. 2 Ohio State (1-0) only five possessions in the first half and 10 in the game deserved an award for controlling — directing — the game.
“We knew we weren’t going to try and outscore them,” Freeman said. “We were going to have a plan to try and control the ball, run the ball, keep the clock running and limit their offensive possessions.”
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner‘s opening play completion to sophomore Lorenzo Styles was the only successful play on Notre Dame’s first drive, but the Irish still cracked the scoreboard first with a 33-yard field goal from Arkansas State transfer Blake Grupe. Buchner’s first career start opened with eight consecutive completions for 128 yards, including an acrobatic, tip-tip-tip-catch from former walk-on Matt Salerno, but then Buchner fell off abruptly, finishing 2-of-10 for 49 yards.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 4, 2022
That Salerno-sparked drive ended with a one-yard touchdown dive from sophomore running back Audric Estime, having lined up as a fullback in a traditional I-formation. That gave Notre Dame a 10-7 lead it would hold deep into the third quarter before the heralded Buckeyes’ offense finally found its footing.
Playing without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba for most of the game after an apparent leg injury on Ohio State’s second drive, Heisman finalist quarterback C.J. Stroud struggled to connect with his remaining targets downfield until he hit Xavier Johnson for a 24-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-11 in the third quarter’s final minute. Stroud finished with 223 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-34 passing, quite a stat line for what would normally be considered a dismal performance for him, relatively speaking.
“Hats off to him,” Freeman said. “There’s a reason why he’s a Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s a really good football player, and they have a really good team.”
The Irish offensive plan was built around not having to chase down multiple Stroud scores. When the Buckeyes scored just before the fourth quarter, Notre Dame needed to respond so as not to fall behind by multiple tallies. Buchner opened the drive by finding fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy for 32 yards, but the Irish went backward from there.
“Can’t give the ball back to their offense,” Buchner said.
That may as well have been the game.
Give #NotreDame credit. A lot of credit.
But at some point, talent wins, and Ohio State is that much more talented.
Buckeyes are gonna hold on tonight. But Irish might be someone to reckon with this season, after all.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 4, 2022
“We executed until we had to get into the passing game and [went] three-and-out,” Freeman said. “We just didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
Stroud & Co. then piled on, adding a long touchdown drive to not only balloon the lead but also to eat up most of the fourth quarter. That seven-minute possession spoiled Freeman’s script, but unlike a similar second-half frustration on New Year’s Day, Notre Dame does not need to wait nine months to write a better ending.
“We have a lot to learn from this game,” Freeman said. “The beauty of this thing is we don’t have to wait 245 days. We have seven days for another opportunity, so we have to get back to work.”
STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led for literally most of the game, ahead on the scoreboard for 32:40 compared to 23:53 for Ohio State. None of that matters, of course, but it underscores both the purpose of Freeman’s game plan — shortening the game with long drives inflated the Irish time ahead — and the literal nature of the collapse, the Buckeyes ahead for the final 15:17, by then essentially deploying the same plan as Notre Dame, something no one could have expected before kickoff.
“We have to stop the run,” Freeman said. “Late in the game, we knew they were running the ball and we couldn’t stop it. That’s someplace we have to improve at.”
QUOTES OF THE NIGHT
Notre Dame made Buchner and senior linebacker Jack Kiser available to the media after the game. Both tried to shoulder the blame for the other side of the ball’s shortcomings. Ohio State scored 14 points in the second half? Buchner’s above comment of “Can’t give the ball back to their offense.”
The Irish not scoring at all in the second half? Kiser pointed to the Buckeyes having possession for 19:34 in the second half.
“We have to do a better job of getting the ball back to our offense and giving them a chance,” he said. “We’re going to own that.
“That’s something we have to work on and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
12:13 — Notre Dame field goal. Blake Grupe 33 yards. Notre Dame 3, Ohio State 0. (5 plays, 71 yards, 2:42)
5:32 — Ohio State touchdown. Emeka Egbuka 31-yard pass from C.J. Stroud. Noah Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 7, Notre Dame 3. (4 plays, 54 yards, 1:34)
11:56 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estime 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Ohio State 7. (10 plays, 87 yards, 5:10)
0:17 — Ohio State touchdown. Xavier Johnson 24-yard pass from Stroud. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 70 yards, 4:33)
4:51 — Ohio State touchdown. Miyan Williams 2-yard rush. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 21, Notre Dame 10. (14 plays, 95 yards, 7:06)