Preview: Ohio State Hosts Notre Dame in Marquee Matchup of College Football’s Opening Weekend

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say Saturday night’s game against Notre Dame is the biggest season opener in Ohio State history.

For the first time ever, an Ohio State season opener will feature two teams in the top five of the preseason rankings. The Buckeyes are ranked second in both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, while Notre Dame is ranked fifth in both major polls.

Add in the history and tradition of the two programs, which have played each other only six previous times despite their proximity to each other in the Midwest, and Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium isn’t just the most anticipated season-opening game of this year’s college football season, but a game Ohio State fans and even its players have been looking forward to for years.

“I love these type of games,” Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba said this week. “Since I was a recruit, this was a game that I looked forward to. ‘Oh, we play Notre Dame in 2022,’ like when I was a junior (in high school), so I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time. And just everyone being pumped and the juice and the electricity is gonna be amazing.”

With both teams having College Football Playoff aspirations, Ohio State debuting a new defensive scheme led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman returning to his alma mater, there’s no shortage of storylines entering Saturday night’s primetime showdown in the Shoe.

Most of all, the Buckeyes are excited to be playing a game again for the first time in eight months, especially one with a national spotlight that should pack Ohio Stadium to its capacity of more than 100,000 fans.

“As much as our guys are doing a great job of being focused, they want to go play a game and hit somebody else,” Ryan Day said this week. “These guys have been working hard for this moment.”

The Headlines

Big Stage Right Off the Bat

Notre Dame is arguably the best team Ohio State will face during the regular season, as it is the highest-ranked opponent in the preseason polls. The Buckeyes must be ready to play at a high level immediately as they begin the year.

While Saturday is only the beginning of Ohio State’s 2022 season, the game carries immediate implications for its College Football Playoff hopes. If the Buckeyes beat Notre Dame, they’ll have a strong case for being the No. 1-ranked team in the country come Sunday. Lose to Notre Dame, and the Buckeyes will go through the rest of the season with no margin for error, while the Fighting Irish will emerge as an early championship contender.

Ohio State learned the hard way last season just how costly losing an early non-conference game can be. While the Buckeyes’ 2021 loss to Oregon didn’t eliminate them from the playoff race, it effectively made their second loss of the season to Michigan fatal to their playoff hopes. The Buckeyes don’t want to risk putting themselves in that situation again.

“It was a terrible feeling, a feeling that we don’t want to happen,” Smith-Njigba said of last year’s loss to Oregon. “So having that in our head all offseason pushed us and motivated us, and we can’t let that happen – it won’t happen again.”

That puts a lot of pressure on the Buckeyes to perform out of the gates, but with that comes excitement, as the Buckeyes are confident they’ll show the world they’re ready to compete for a national title this season. For Saturday, however, Day says the Buckeyes need to be squarely focused on trying to beat Notre Dame rather than on anything that could come after that.

“The nation will be watching, and you get to be front and center,” Day said. “It’s great for them to realize that, but we can’t make it bigger than it is either. We’ve got to make sure that we’re focused on what really matters.

“But the guys know. This has been on the schedule for a while. As it gets closer, you start to feel it a little bit more. But we knew this was coming, and we’ve been preparing all summer.”

Premiere of a New Defense

The arrival of Jim Knowles and the introduction of a new defensive scheme has been the storyline that’s dominated Ohio State’s offseason. After eight months of buildup, we’ll finally get our first look at Knowles’ scheme in action on Saturday.

The Buckeyes have done nothing to quell high expectations for their defense this preseason. After Day said he expects Ohio State to have a top-10 defense this year, Knowles upped the ante and said he expects the Buckeyes to have a top-five defense.

Those expectations will be tested by Notre Dame, whose offense features one of college football’s elite tight ends in Michael Mayer, and a talented but unproven new starting quarterback in Tyler Buchner. The Fighting Irish are also expected to have one of college football’s best offensive lines and have a three-deep running back rotation with Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs and Audric Estime.

However, Knowles and his players are optimistic that they’ll be ready for the challenge.

“We’re ready,” Knowles said Tuesday. “We’re 100% ready to go.”

As the Buckeyes prepare to unveil their new defensive scheme on the national stage, safety Ronnie Hickman said he and his defensive teammates are excited to “show the world and show everyone what we’ve been doing.”

“I’m just excited for everyone else to see it,” Hickman said. “We’ve been getting more comfortable each day we go out there and dial in on things.”

Freeman, Laurinaitis Return to Columbus

Notre Dame’s first-year head coach will begin his first entire season leading the Fighting Irish in familiar territory. A linebacker at Ohio State from 2004-08 who started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in 2010, Marcus Freeman succeeded Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s head coach in December. He will now look to spoil his alma mater’s home opener.

Freeman’s homecoming has been one of the most-discussed storylines leading up to Saturday’s game. He ensured that it would be with some of the comments he’s made since becoming Notre Dame’s head coach, most notably when he said, “I just thank God that I didn’t make the wrong decision twice” – referencing his decision to play for Ohio State instead of Notre Dame – in an essay for The Players’ Tribune just after he got the job.

This week, however, Freeman has sought to downplay the angle of his return to Ohio State, preferring to keep the focus on his current team and his preparation for Saturday’s game.

“I’m pretty right now emotionless about going back to Ohio State,” Freeman said Monday. “The emotions you have is like, man, we get to go play a great team. You get to go play in a great hostile environment, and that’s to me where the emotion is.”

Freeman – who has already coached against Ohio State twice as Purdue’s linebackers coach and as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator – isn’t the only former Ohio State linebacker now coaching for the Fighting Irish. Three-time Ohio State All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis is currently a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, where he’s starting his coaching career as a member of his former teammate’s staff. Ohio State’s linebackers coach from the last three seasons, Al Washington, will also return to Ohio Stadium this weekend as Notre Dame’s defensive line coach.

Ohio State’s staff also includes some Notre Dame connections. Running backs coach Tony Alford was an assistant at Notre Dame from 2009-14, and Freeman took a swing at trying to hire both Alford and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline away from Ohio State this offseason before Ohio State promoted them to run game coordinator and passing game coordinator, respectively. Assistant athletic director for football sports performance Mickey Marotti was the director of strength and conditioning at Notre Dame from 1998-2005, while senior advisor to the head coach Keenan Bailey is a Notre Dame alumnus who also worked there as a recruiting assistant for two years before joining Ohio State’s staff.

Keep An Eye on These Guys

TE Michael Mayer

Notre Dame’s biggest star and arguably the best tight end in college football, Mayer will pose the biggest threat of any individual player to Ohio State’s defense on Saturday. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds with receiver-like athleticism, Mayer will be a tough matchup for whoever draws the assignment of covering him – likely one of Ohio State’s safeties, whether that be Hickman, Josh Proctor or perhaps Kourt Williams or Lathan Ransom in some packages.

Mayer led Notre Dame with 71 receptions for 840 yards and seven touchdowns last season, so the Fighting Irish will likely target him early and often on Saturday, especially since they have few proven weapons at wide receiver. That said, Knowles is confident that the Buckeyes’ safeties will be able to handle the challenge covering Mayer presents.

“I feel like all our safeties can do it,” Knowles said. “He may be a little taller than them, but they’re gonna be willing to step up and use their hands, use their body, be aggressive in coverage, and that’s the most important part.”

LG Jarrett Patterson

When healthy, Patterson might be the best offensive lineman in college football. ESPN ranked him as such last month, listing Patterson as the No. 22 overall player in their top 100 players entering the 2022 college football season.

If Patterson, who is now playing left guard after starting at center for the last three seasons, is in the lineup on Saturday, the Fighting Irish will likely look to run the ball behind him often. His availability for Saturday’s game remains in question, however, as Freeman said Thursday that Patterson remains questionable to play due to a foot injury he suffered in preseason camp.

Should Patterson be unable to play or hampered by his injury, the Ohio State defensive lines’ chances of winning the battle in the trenches will be bolstered – though Patterson’s backup, Rocco Spindler, is a talented redshirt freshman who was also heavily pursued by the Buckeyes as a recruit.

S Brandon Joseph

Ohio State fans will remember Joseph from the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game when he made a spectacular one-handed interception in the end zone on a Justin Fields pass intended for Garrett Wilson. Playing for Northwestern at the time, Joseph was one of the best safeties in college football in 2020, earning first-team All-American honors.

With Joseph leading the way on the back end of the defense, Northwestern held Fields to only 114 passing yards, the fewest passing yards Ohio State has had in any game in the last five years.

Two years later, Joseph will play against Ohio State again as the new leader of Notre Dame’s secondary after transferring from Evanston to South Bend this offseason. After the Fighting Irish ranked just 63rd nationally in passing yards allowed per game last season, Joseph’s presence in the middle of the secondary will be crucial to their chances of slowing down C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes’ passing offense in their first game of 2022.

Game Week Talk

“We’re gonna put our hearts on the field, and we’re gonna leave there knowing that we put everything into the game, and hopefully the scoreboard reflects that.”– Ohio State center Luke Wypler

Wypler told Eleven Warriors there isn’t “gonna be anything left unturned” as he expects the Buckeyes to play with “intensity and firepower” from the first play of the game to the last.

“We’re definitely gonna let the country know who we are.”– Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson

Henderson says the Buckeyes “know we got a big opponent coming up,” but they’ve been working on winning the first game of the season all year, so they’re confident they’ll be able to make a statement on Saturday.

“I’m very confident in my teammates. I believe in our defense. I’ll take our defense against anybody in the nation.”– Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau

Ohio State had the No. 1 offense in the country last season and is widely expected to have the nation’s best offense again this year, but Fighting Irish defenders are confident they’ll be up to the challenge.

Get Smart

Projected Starters
Ohio State Pos Notre Dame
  • Saturday’s game will kick off the 133rd season of Ohio State football. Ohio State will also be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ohio Stadium this year, though it’s actually the 101st season of games in the Shoe.
  • Ohio State is 4-2 all-time against Notre Dame. The Buckeyes have won all four matchups between the two teams since 1995, while Notre Dame’s only wins over Ohio State came in 1935 and 1936.
  • ESPN’s College GameDay will be in attendance for Saturday’s game, broadcast live from Ohio State’s campus for the 21st time in the show’s history. Ohio State is 15-5 in its previous 20 games when GameDay has been on campus and 37-16 in 53 overall games that GameDay has broadcasted from.
  • Ohio State has won all 22 of its season openers since 2000.
  • Notre Dame’s roster features nine players from Ohio, including two starters: Wide receiver Lorenzo Styles and center Zeke Correll. Styles is the son of former Ohio State linebacker Lorenzo Styles and older brother of Ohio State freshman safety Sonny Styles.
  • A pair of high school teammates will meet in the trenches, as Ohio State center Luke Wypler and starting Notre Dame defensive tackle Howard Cross played together at Saint Joseph Regional High School in New Jersey.
  • Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, will be honored at the end of the first quarter.
  • Ohio State is encouraging fans attending the game to arrive early. Per an Ohio State spokesperson, traffic patterns around the stadium will be adjusted beginning around 1:30-2 p.m. Saturday.
  • A status report listing players who will be unavailable or game-time decisions for the game will be released by Ohio State at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -17, O/U 59.5

Even though Notre Dame enters the season ranked in the top five, Ohio State is favored to win this game by three scores. That speaks to the high expectations for the second-ranked Buckeyes entering this season (and Notre Dame perhaps being ranked a bit higher than it should be).

More Ohio State vs. Notre Dame Coverage

Point spread aside, there’s still more reason to expect a battle than a blowout on Saturday night. Ohio State’s offense should be capable of putting up numbers against anyone, but Notre Dame’s defense could also be among the nation’s best. Despite its preseason optimism, Ohio State’s defense still has a lot to prove, and there could be early growing pains as the Buckeyes get acclimated to playing an actual game in Knowles’ scheme.

On paper, though, Ohio State has a clear advantage in offensive firepower that the Fighting Irish may be unable to keep up with in the end, provided the Buckeyes get off to at least a solid start defensively.

Ohio State should be happy to win this game by any amount of points. Still, all 14 members of the Eleven Warriors writing staff believe the Buckeyes will ultimately beat the Irish by multiple scores. All of us project Ohio State will score between 35-45 points while holding Notre Dame to 17-24 points, as we expect the Buckeyes to make their share of big plays on offense while holding the Fighting Irish to three or four scores.

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