This Week in Ohio State Football: How New Notre Dame offense will test Buckeyes’ defense

The intrigue this week is very Midwest Football as two of the region’s biggest brands get set to square off again.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day and Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman answered questions about their approaches to last year’s 21-10 Ohio State win in very similar fashion this week.

Both of them said the conservative nature of the 2022 game was largely a result of it being the lid-lifter for both teams, and both indicated the attack should be more open this time around.

So what should we expect Saturday night in South Bend?

Let’s break down some of the hottest topics of the week:

1. Notre Dame is a lot different on offense.

Under new offensive coordinator Gerard Parker, the Fighting Irish are running what Day and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles termed a more pro-style scheme than the spread-to-run attack they operated from in the past.

Their 45-24 win over N.C. State on Sept. 9 featured heavy use of tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks along with 134 yards from star running back Audric Estime, but the biggest change is a result of bringing in veteran quarterback Sam Hartman from Wake Forest. He has put up big numbers so far and looks like a strong distributor of the football. Last year, the Irish started inexperienced Tyler Buchner against the Buckeyes, and he ran 11 times while throwing 18 passes.

Like his college head coach Jim Tressel, Freeman likely subscribes to the “win the surest way” mantra, which doesn’t mean being conservative for conservation sake but rather allows for opening up the offense when the tools are in place. Well, the tools are in place.

2. Ohio State is somewhat different on defense. Maybe.

That is an ongoing question in year two under Jim Knowles.

The Buckeyes defensive coordinator got the top line in this space last week when he acknowledged taking a more conservative approach this season after getting burned by too many big plays last year, sometimes when he called a heavy pressure package with little or no help for his guys in coverage.

The issues started with the first play of the season against Notre Dame when he called a “zero” blitz (so there was no free safety), the Buckeyes missed a tackle and Lorenzo Styles Jr. (who ironically is an Ohio State defensive back now) went 54 yards before being brought down. The fact he was stopped and Notre Dame settled for a field goal actually played into Knowles’ strategy, though, and was a key difference from what would happen later in the season against Michigan and Georgia. While Knowles says he can live with some big hits if he can create some extra havoc, that is only true if they typically aren’t touchdowns and the defense still has a chance to recover as opposed to what happened against the Wolverines or Bulldogs.

The big questions is will Knowles trust his guys to get home this week against a talented Notre Dame offensive line, or will he feel the need to heat Hartman up and take some risks?

“Such is the dilemma, right?” Knowles said to some laughter. “I mean, it’s week to week. It really is. And you take it play by play and situation by situation, and you want to always have something to change up, keep them off balance. I guess that’s why I work all those hours. If there was an easy answer to that question, I’d be smoking a cigar right now.”

3. Ohio State’s defensive ends figure to be in the spotlight again.

Juniors Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimolau are quickly becoming lightning rods for fan criticism because they are both five-star recruits who have yet to put up big numbers, but like active hockey players who are around the puck even if they aren’t scoring, they were both much more noticeable Saturday against Western Kentucky than the first two weeks.

Knowles said he liked the pressure they were able to generate, and they both received elite grades from Pro Football Focus (for what that is worth), so Sawyer and Tuimolau appear to be headed in the right direction.

And, hey, might we finally see the Jack back in action?

The hybrid end/linebacker position has not been used in a game at all this season, but Mitchell Melton and C.J. Hicks have bene mentioned as players who could fill the role.

Melton had two tackles for loss and a sack late in the WKU game (as a regular defensive end), and Knowles indicated he is comfortable putting him out there in more serious situations.

“I’m comfortable now — it’s just got to be part of the game plan,” Knowles said. :It’s in, and you never know when you’re gonna see it.”

Like last week when we floated the idea of backup quarterback Devin Brown being a short-yardage option, take this more as a “stranger things have happened” than a prediction, though.

3. Will this be 2021 Oregon 2.0 for the Ohio State offense?

Day was asked how to avoid putting too much on the plate of his first-year starting quarterback after doing so in a Week 2 loss to Oregon two years ago.

Then it was C.J. Stroud, who went on to great heights but at that point wasn’t ready to carry the offense to victory against such team, and now it is Kyle McCord.

Day’s response was interesting because he most certainly did not rule out giving McCord’s right arm a workout Saturday night.

“He has to go play the game, and we have to do whatever we can to win the game,” Day said. “That’s the bottom line. Whatever that looks like, we’re always looking for balance. We want balance. There’s certain times where like last year we ran the ball a ton down the stretch and were good with making five or six yards or a carry. But then there’s also times where you gotta throw it more because of what they’re doing and how the game is playing out.”

Is that silly? Stubborn? Ridiculous, even?

Well, no because Ohio State has looked better spreading things out and utilizing short, easy passes to get the ball to star receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka (not to mention running back TreVeyon Henderson and others) than trying to get in heavy sets and pound the rock.

As much as Day might look with some envy at the smash-mouth attack Notre Dame has developed, his team just hasn’t shown the ability to run the ball when the opponent knows it is coming. At least not yet.

“We have to be able to pivot either way, whatever it takes to win the game,” Day said.


Ohio State at Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m., NBC, 1410

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