Kirk Herbstreit believes Notre Dame can use Fiesta Bowl loss to its advantage against Buckeyes

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Kirk Herbstreit: ESPN analyst

If there is anywhere No. 5 Notre Dame can get a leg up before its marquee season-opener at No. 2 Ohio State, head coach Marcus Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees should look no further than last year's Fiesta Bowl, according to ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit.

Herbstreit, who will be on the call for Saturday primetime game (7:30 p.m. EST/ABC) as well as part of ESPN's College Gameday crew in Columbus, Ohio, believes it's to Notre Dame's benefit that it had success against a Jim Knowles-schemed defense in the past, rather than going into Saturday's game blind.

"I think (Notre Dame) threw for over 500 yards in that game," Herbstreit said in a Zoom call Tuesday, referring to the 37-35 Irish loss to Oklahoma State Jan. 1. "This being the first game, of course you are going to go back to the game you played against that school. Even though he (Knowles) wasn't calling the defense, it was his scheme, just to see how matchups worked out."

Knowles, Ohio State's defensive coordinator, held the same position with Oklahoma State last season. He left for Columbus before the Fiesta Bowl, but the scheme itself was something very similar to what Notre Dame saw in Arizona. The Irish finished with 551 total yards in Freeman's first game as the program's new head coach.

"(Notre Dame) had a lot of success that day, being able to put up a lot of points, even though they came up a little bit short," Herbstreit said. "They still had a big day offensively. It is new personnel, a lot of new faces. I think that will at least give (Rees) a little bit of a better feel, as opposed to not playing that game and going into it and trying to go back and look at Oklahoma State film, clearly when you weren’t playing against Notre Dame. I think it definitely helps him."

One of those new faces, Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, has zero experience against Knowles' defense because Freeman elected not to play him in the Fiesta Bowl. Jack Coan, the starter throughout the season, threw 67 passes in the game and never came out. He finished with 509 yards passing and five touchdowns.

More:Marcus Freeman on Notre Dame's 17 1/2-point underdog status: 'We'll use that'

More:Family emotions will run high in Styles Bowl on Saturday night at Ohio State

Freeman, said Monday he didn't have any regrets with that decision.

Looking ahead, Herbstreit believes Buchner, though having yet to show it on a larger scale, can give Notre Dame's offense a new a look in 2022.

"I'm excited to see Buchner," Herbstreit said. "He is a guy that last year was the change-of-pace guy to Jack Coan. Jack was more of your drop back, read the defense and make throws. Buchner would come in, we all know his skill set and what he can do, now he has won the job and it is his offense.

"This is an opportunity for Tommy Rees to show America and Notre Dame fans that it is not just, ‘This is our system. This is who we are.’ Great offensive coordinators like Tommy, they adjust their scheme to their personnel and strengths. You go from having more of a traditional drop back guy, to now having a guy that can really put pressure on a defense with his legs and his arm and I think you will see a very different approach."

Herbstreit said he likes the skill-set Buchner brings to the table, being a more mobile quarterback, something he believes can be very effective at the college level. But the sophomore's lack of experience (playing essentially one year of high school ball and sparingly last season) is a question mark, especially with his first college start coming at Ohio Stadium in front of 105,000 fans.

With more reps, Herbstreit expects Buchner to be a "very different player" by the middle of the season. Until then, there may be extra weight on Rees' shoulders to keep his young signal caller out of harms way.

"They need to stay on schedule and avoid those (obvious) passing situations, or it can be a tough day for their offensive line and for Tyler Buchner," Herbstreit said. "The most important thing for them is early-down play action and staying on schedule to try to catch the Ohio State defense, throwing on your terms as opposed to waiting and they know what is coming."

No. 5 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (0-0) 

When: Saturday at 7 :30 p.m. 

Where: Ohio Stadium (104,944), Columbus, Ohio 

TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM) 

Line: Ohio State minus-17½ 

Series: Ohio State leads, 4-2. 

Last meeting: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28 (Fiesta Bowl), Jan. 1, 2016, Glendale, Ariz.