Keys to the game: How No. 5 Notre Dame can upset No. 2 Ohio State

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

These keys to the game could likely decide if No. 5 Notre Dame (0-0) can upset No. 2 Ohio State (0-0) on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio (7:30 p.m. EST on ABC)

Third downs will be important

Quite possibly the game's biggest key. Notre Dame can't afford its short offensive drives with three-and-outs and needs its defense to get off the field and force punts on third downs, especially against Ohio State's projected high-powered offense.

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Last season, the Irish did just that. Notre Dame finished 46th in college football with a 42% third-down conversion rate on offense, and was one of the best defensive third down teams, with opponents converting only 32% of their opportunities, good for 10th in college football.

Those areas will need to be strong again in Week 1 if Notre Dame wants to pull off the upset.

Notre Dame's Tyler Buchner passes the ball during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Stopping the home run plays

A lot of the attention towards Ohio State's offense will be on junior quarterback C.J. Stroud, and rightfully so, because the Heisman Trophy candidate is a big play waiting to happen every snap. That is what Notre Dame's defense needs to be extra attentive towards.

The Buckeyes didn't throw the deep ball often last season (only 62 attempts) but Stroud was pretty efficient in those opportunities. Per Pro Football Focus, Stroud completed 51% of his throws (32-for-62) for 1,076, 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions on passes that traveled more than 20 yards.

Four of those went to Ohio State's big-play receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who will certainly command a lot of attention from Notre Dame's secondary Saturday night.

Finding success against Ohio State's defense through the air

The one glaring weakness that Ohio State enters the 2022 season with is its defense, more specifically the secondary. The Buckeyes finished 97th last season in college football, allowing 3,200 passing yards to opponents.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day tried to fix the issue by bringing in Jim Knowles as the team's new defensive coordinator from Oklahoma State. Though Knowles didn't coach in the game, Notre Dame already showed its ability to produce against a Knowles-styled defense, recording 551 total yards in last year's Fiesta Bowl loss to the Cowboys.

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Looking at Ohio State's projected starters, the Buckeyes still have some question marks in that unit.

Denzel Burke, who led Ohio State's defense in snaps as a true freshman, allowed 31 receptions on 64 targets, per Pro Football Focus. Cameron Brown, another returning starter at cornerback, allowed 14.5 yards per reception when target, which was third worst on the team. Free safety Ronnie Hickman allowed 13.5 yards per reception when targeted. Strong Safety Josh Proctor is coming off of a season-ending injury after playing just two games. And Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister allowed a team-high four touchdowns for the Cowboys last season.

On paper, there will be opportunities for Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to find success through the air Saturday night.

Try to make the Buckeyes one dimensional

It sounds simpler than it actually is because Ohio State has so many weapons it can attack defenses in so many ways. In last season's two losses (vs Oregon and at Michigan), those defensive units were able to force the Buckeyes in throwing to move the ball.

The Ducks allowed only 128 rushing yards in their seven-point win ( Ohio State's fourth lowest total of the season) and the Wolverines held their rivals to a season-low 64 rushing yards in last year's regular season finale.

Stopping the run won't be the end-all-be-all for Notre Dame's defense, but it will certainly give the Irish a shot in avoiding a potential offensive shootout.

Win the line of scrimmage

This game projects to be an offensive line clinic Saturday because of the talent and experience both the Buckeyes and Irish have in those groups.

Last season, Ohio State ranked No. 5 in run blocking and No. 28 in pass blocking in college football, per Pro Football Focus. The group is led by returning starters Luke Wypler at center and Paris Johnson Jr at left tackle.

On the flip side, Notre Dame's defense finished No. 19 in defending the run and No. 50 in pass rush.

Notre Dame's offensive line is just as talented, finishing last season No. 14 in pass blocking and No. 22 in run blocking. The Irish have a great mix of youth and talent in this year's starting group between Joe Alt, Josh Lugg, Pat Coogan and Blake Fisher.

Ohio State's defense finished No. 23 in pass rush, per PFF and No. 50 in run defense.

Then there is the Jarrett Patterson question and how much his absence or limitation (if he plays) will affect Notre Dame. Even without the senior All-America, Notre Dame has enough talent there to push some people around.

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 -17½ 
  • Series: Ohio State leads, 4-2. 
  • Last meeting: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28 (Fiesta Bowl), Jan. 1, 2016, Glendale, Ariz.