SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — No. 6 Ohio State has been dogged at times this season by doubts about its firepower. Two lackluster wins to open the season didn’t help even though the Buckeyes have beaten all three of their opponents by at least 20 points and never given up more than 10.
They have a chance to silence some of the doubters Saturday night at No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0), a showcase game with potential implications for the College Football Playoff.
“You build up in these first few games to figure out where you are going into this game and you go from there,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I think we got some confidence going into this game. We’ve got a rhythm.”
The Buckeyes rank third in total defense, giving up 223.7 yards per game. After struggling early, the offense found its footing last weekend in a 63-10 rout of Western Kentucky.
The Fighting Irish also own one of the nation’s top defenses, limiting opponents to 234.3 yards per game, right behind Ohio State. With Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman at quarterback, the offense has undergone a seismic transformation.
Notre Dame averaged 25 points (94th) and 5.4 yards per play (96th) through its first four games last season. In 2023, the Irish have scored 46 points per game (ninth) and gained 8.3 yards per play (5th).
The Buckeyes (3-0) are a slight favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Coach Marcus Freeman doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s matchup at Ohio Stadium, where the Irish hoped to control the clock on offense and keep the ball away from the explosive Buckeyes. Ohio State scored 14 unanswered points in the game’s final 16 minutes, defeating Notre Dame 21-10.
“I don’t want to play not to lose,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to play that way. I want our guys to be aggressive and our guys to be attacking. We will play complementary football, but our objective isn’t just to hold the ball and huddle every single play. (That’s) what my mindset probably was last year.”
HARTMAN vs. MCCORD
Hartman is on a roll, completing 71.1% of his passes for 1,061 yards and totaling 15 touchdowns. He is in his sixth college football season, he’s played in an ACC Championship game and he’s led late drives with the game on the line.
“I have a lot of confidence that he’ll be well-prepared,” Freeman said, “and the moment won’t be too big for him at all.”
Ohio State’s Kyle McCord will make his fifth start on Saturday. The junior struggled in the opener against Indiana, going 20-33 for 239 yards and an interception in the 23-3 victory. The last two games, however, he has completed 76.7% of passes for 576 yards and six TDs.
“He hasn’t played a whole bunch of football, but he’s been around,” Day said. “He’s seen it. He’s older and more mature than a freshman who is coming into the same situation, but I think experience does play a part of it.”
Like McCord, star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. got off to a slow start. After just two catches for 18 yards in Week 1, Harrison had seven grabs for 160 yards and two touchdowns against Youngtown State, then caught five for 126 yards and a TD last week.
Notre Dame’s top-rated pass efficiency defense will try to slow things down, but Harrison is confident he’ll make plays in single coverage, even against preseason second-team All-American corner Ben Morrison.
“What you realize is it’s a team game,” Harrison said. “Rarely is it the whole game going to be a one-on-one matchup. I have to do my part and win my one-on-ones when I get the opportunity.”
ON THE GROUND
Irish running back Audric Estimé leads the nation with 521 rushing yards and his fourth with five TDs. He’ll run into one of the top nation’s rush defenses. The Buckeyes give up 83.3 rush yards per game (20th) and have allowed only one ground score.
Still, it’ll require a group effort to tackle a 230-pound back with nimble feet and breakaway speed.
“We like to say ‘smart swarm,’” safety Sonny Styles said. “Everyone has to come in, and you have to be physical with him. He’s a really good running back.”
With three new starters on the offensive line, the Buckeyes average just 156.7 rushing yards per game with a running back-by-committee approach.
TreVeyon Henderson had a season-high 88 rushing yards and two touchdowns last week, pushing his three-game total to 191 yards and four scores. Chip Trayanum and Miyan Williams have a combined 37 carries for 206 yards and three TDs.
“It all starts with the run game,” Freeman said. “They want to run the ball. (It’s) a very similar mindset that I have. It’s the ability to run the ball that will create openings in the pass game, and that’s what I’ve seen on the field.”
In ranked contests vs. Nebraska (2000), Georgia (2017) and Cincinnati (2021) large pockets of red-clad visiting fans were plain to see at Notre Dame Stadium. Buckeyes fans in scarlet and gray will be present Saturday, but stadium personnel will provide fans with light-up green wristbands and encourage Irish supporters to match the football team’s attire.
“We’ve got green jerseys,” Freeman said. “I don’t know if they’re calling it a green out, but we want to see a lot of green.”