SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A close game will not be good enough for No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) tonight. A year ago, while the Irish wanted to upset Ohio State on the road in not only the season opener but also Marcus Freeman’s head-coaching genuine debut, a close loss momentarily provided some forward momentum.
Notre Dame hung with a proven Playoff team with a future No. 2 overall draft pick at quarterback. No one around the Irish program could publicly say the 21-10 loss was encouraging, but the overall buzz after that game took on that tone, to such an extent that suggesting Notre Dame was not a national title contender was met with rebuke.
A competitive loss to No. 6 Ohio State (3-0) tonight would not have the same effect.
“You have a year under your belt,” Freeman said Monday. “It’s not the first game of the year. You’ve been able to develop an identity as a program with these first four games, and so it’s a lot different than it was last year.”
That difference may seem simple, but it’s a truth. Notre Dame began the season ranked No. 13, 10 spots behind Ohio State, a greater rankings gap than last year’s. That spread may have been bigger than this preseason’s Game of the Year lines expected this to be, but if tonight had been instead played in Week 1, the Irish may be near content with a close loss, one that showed progress from last season, one that did not rule out Playoff contention yet this fall.
But now, after Notre Dame has impressed perhaps more than any program on an interstate electric grid, no one in South Bend will be satisfied with a close loss. Freeman can no longer show merely understandable growth along his coaching learning curve. Modern college football demands acceleration far quicker than that, and through four weeks of this season, the Irish have shown that kind of acceleration.
“You have two good teams and that’s the focus, right?” Freeman said Thursday. “It’s not about where I was or where I went to school or anybody else. It’s about preparing your team to face a really good Ohio State team, and I’m sure on the other hand, Ohio State has the same mentality.”
This is the fourth time in the last six seasons that Notre Dame has hosted a top-10 matchup. As much grief as Brian Kelly took for supposedly losing too many big games — a criticism intentionally overlooking the competitive reality that it is supposed to be hard to beat top-20 teams on the road — the Irish went 11-5 at home against top-20 teams during his tenure, including 2-1 against top-10 foes, perhaps underscoring the natural difficulty for the road team in those moments.
Notre Dame will not be able to gloss up a close loss tonight, not in Freeman’s second season — when Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day and USC head coach Lincoln Riley, then at Oklahoma, both reached their first national championship games — and not at home where the Irish have fared better than acknowledged amid hand-wringing over ticket sales.
TV: NBC will begin coverage from South Bend at 3:00 ET with the College Countdown pregame show before Maryland and Michigan State kick off at 3:30. Anchored by Maria Taylor, College Countdown will look ahead at both that Big Ten tilt and the top-1o primetime event.
Coverage will return to South Bend at 7 ET, with former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown joining the pregame show.
Noah Eagle will provide the game’s play-by-play with Todd Blackledge as his analyst and Kathryn Tappen reporting from the sidelines.
TIME: Expect kickoff to occur a bit after 7:30 ET, just as the sun is setting at Notre Dame.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 20, 2023
PREVIEW: The headlines around Ohio State focus on its skill-position players, inarguably enjoying the best receivers group in the country and quite possibly being able to claim the same at running back. At Notre Dame, the hype surrounds Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman, with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his first four games in a plain gold helmet, helping the Irish average 46 points per game.
But tonight, some attention should be focused on the trenches.
The Buckeyes are still finding a groove with three new offensive linemen, left tackle Josh Simmons, center Carson Hinzman and right tackle Josh Fryar all replacing NFL draft picks. They will face an Irish defensive line rife with experience — five of the nine regular contributors are seniors or fifth-year veterans, including all four starters, and two of the reserves are 300-pound juniors, while the last two of the grouping are sophomore defensive ends with a rather straightforward assignment: Bother Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord — but light on star power. Notre Dame has yet to find a defensive lineman with the game-wrecking ability of Isaiah Foskey, another NFL draft pick.
These two unproven units, one young and talented, the other experienced but perhaps capped, will determine if the Buckeyes’ receivers have time to run their routes. Irish cornerbacks Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart may want to dictate that aspect, but it will hinge that much more on the Notre Dame defensive line.
On the other side of the ball, strength will meet strength.
Irish left tackle Joe Alt is a surefire early first-round draft pick this coming spring, while right tackle Blake Fisher currently looks like a second-round pick with the ability to find his way into the first round. They will match up with Ohio State defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau, a presumed first-round pick in his own right, and Jack Sawyer, off to a meager start this season with only half a tackle for loss after racking up 6.5 last year. If Fisher allows Tuimoloau to impact Hartman’s timing, then Notre Dame’s greatest improvement from a year ago may be rendered moot, but if Tuimoloau is stonewalled, then the Buckeyes’ defense could quickly look pedestrian.
PREDICTION: Consider two excellent basketball teams, evenly-matched in record and expectation, one dependent on a dominant post player and the other led by a star guard. More trust can be put in the latter, as the ball begins each possession in his hands. No extra step is needed to empower the team’s fulcrum.
In a game with a spread as narrow as a field goal, though about half the widely-available sportsbooks have Ohio State favored by 3.5 points as of early Saturday with a combined point total Over/Under of 55.5, that kind of roster deconstruction could be the difference. And in football, the star guard is the quarterback and/or running backs.
Perimeter players may determine a team’s ceiling in modern college football, separate the national title contenders from the also-rans — just look at Ohio State and Notre Dame last season — but they need someone to get them the ball. If the quarterback cannot make Marvin Harrison Jr. or Emeka Egbuka shine, then their impact is reduced that drastically.
Simply enough, the Irish have the star guards in this basketball analogy. Sam Hartman will have the ball in his hands every snap, and Alt and Fisher should be trusted to win the vast majority of their snaps against Tuimoloau and Sawyer.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 20, 2023
Junior running back Audric Estimé can help Alt and Fisher with those tasks, when he is not running past Tuimoloau and Sawyer on his own. Notre Dame has not deployed that wrinkle yet this season, it has not needed to ask Estimé to chip defensive linemen or stand up to blitzing linebackers, a la Kyren Williams in the Irish double-overtime victory against Clemson in 2020. Estimé should have that ability, and such a reasonable addition to the offense could further embolden Hartman.
Notre Dame can guarantee the ball will be in its best player’s hands tonight. Ohio State can’t. And the first half of that thought is true no matter who you consider to be the best Irish player, Hartman or Estimé.
Notre Dame 31, Ohio State 20.
Predictions record straight-up: 4-0; Against the spread: 3-1; Over/Under: 1-3.
Notre Dame record straight-up: 4-0; Against the spread: 3-1; Over/Under: 3-1.
IRISH WEAR GREEN
Notre Dame will wear green jerseys tonight and has strongly suggested all fans do so, as well. It is an effort to counter what will assuredly be a glut of red in the stands.
“We want to see a lot of green in here,” Freeman said Monday. “That’s the cool thing about Saturday. We have green jerseys. I don’t know if they’re calling it a green out, but we want to see a lot of green. Our players notice it and appreciate that, especially pregame.”
To further the fan experience, every seat at Notre Dame Stadium will have an LED wristband programmed to light shows throughout the night. Each wristband will also get fans a 20 percent off discount code at the University store.
INSIDE THE IRISH
— Friday at 4: Ohio State turning Notre Dame Stadium red a reality and a compliment, not an Irish failing
— Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defensive back-seven key to unleashing Sam Hartman, Irish offense vs Ohio State
— And In That Corner ... The No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes visit Notre Dame with an unproven quarterback
— Marcus Freeman prioritizes being ‘aggressive’ over complementary football vs Ohio State
— Notre Dame’s 2023 Opponents: Ohio State’s sudden efficiency, Pittsburgh’s QB troubles, USC’s control issues
— How to watch Notre Dame vs Ohio State on Saturday and the Irish all season: TV, Peacock info for 2023
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) September 22, 2023
— Ohio State vs Notre Dame odds, picks and predictions: Home is where the Hartman is
— College Football Week 4 odds, picks and predictions: Bucking the Buckeyes
— Can Ohio State’s Kyle McCord overcome inexperience with poise in QB duel with Sam Hartman?
— Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman, Ohio State’s Ryan Day’s similar paths converge
— Football weekend events at Notre Dame
— What we know and don’t know one quarter into the 2023 college football season
— Promotion/relegation in college football? Game-changing idea could help save Pac-12
— Shame on USC for banning a reporter in a futile attempt to control media
— It’s not the job of USC’s Lincoln Riley or any news source to dictate coverage
— NCAA committee suggests removing cannabis from list of banned drugs
Can't wait to see what he'll do for an encore this weekend. https://t.co/nyUPz4XFct
— Eric Hansen (@EHansenND) September 22, 2023