COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Hollywood had written the beginning of the Marcus Freeman era in Notre Dame, it would have deemed this script too misleading, too unsatisfying, too heartbreaking for a typical sports movie. The No. 5 Irishman led Freeman’s alma mater for much of Saturday night, but Ohio State’s dynamic offense finally broke through late in the third quarter to quell the surprise offer , 21-10.
Until then, Notre Dame (0-1) had followed the exact script Freeman had written earlier in the week, although his ending was obviously different from a second loss in two games as head coach of Our Lady.
“There is no moral victory,” he said. “We did not execute. … We have to be able to finish when it matters most. This is ultimately what cost us.
The 36-year-old first-time head coach said during the week that he wanted the Irish to get off to a quick start. A 54-yard completion on the game’s first snap matched that tone. The father-of-six said he wanted Notre Dame to slow down play to minimize the impact of the Buckeyes’ offense. Giving No. 2 Ohio State (1-0) just five possessions in the first half and 10 in the game deserved a reward for controlling — directing — the game.
“We knew we weren’t going to try and top them,” Freeman said. “We were going to have a plan to try to control the ball, run the ball, run the clock and limit their offensive possessions.”
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s opening game completion against sophomore Lorenzo Styles was the only successful play in Notre Dame’s first practice, but the Irish still cracked the scoreboard in first with a 33-yard field goal from Arkansas State transfer Blake Grupe. Buchner’s first career start opened with eight straight completions for 128 yards, including an acrobatic, tip-tip-tip-catch catch from former walk-on Matt Salerno, but Buchner then fell sharply, finishing 2 of 10 for 49 yards.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 4, 2022
That Salerno-triggered drive ended with a one-yard touchdown dive from second-year running back Audric Estime, after lining up as a fullback in a traditional I formation. That gave Notre Dame a 10-7 lead that they would hold in the third quarter before the Buckeyes’ heralded offense finally found its footing.
Playing without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba for most of the game after an apparent leg injury in Ohio State’s second practice, Heisman runner-up quarterback CJ Stroud struggled to connect with his targets remaining until he hit Xavier Johnson for a 24-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-11 in the final minute of the third quarter. Stroud finished with 223 yards and two touchdowns on 24 of 34 passes, quite a stat line for what would normally be considered a dismal performance for him, relatively speaking.
“Hats off to him,” Freeman said. “There’s a reason he’s a contender for the Heisman Trophy. He is a very good football player and they have a very good team.
The Irish attacking plan was constructed so as not to have to chase multiple scores from Stroud. When the Buckeyes scored just before the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had to react not to be left behind by multiple counts. Buchner opened the drive by finding fifth-year wide receiver Braden Lenzy for 32 yards, but the Irish fell back from there.
“I can’t return the ball to their attack,” Buchner said.
It might as well have been the game.
Give #Our Lady credit. Lots of credit.
But at some point, talent wins, and Ohio State is all the more talented.
The Buckeyes are going to hold on tonight. But the Irishman could be someone to be reckoned with this season, after all.
—Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 4, 2022
“We ran until we had to get into the passing game and [went] three and out,” Freeman said. “We just didn’t end up the way we wanted.”
Stroud & Co. then added a long touchdown to not only inflate the lead, but also swallow up most of the fourth quarter. That seven-minute possession ruined Freeman’s script, but unlike a similar second-half frustration on New Year’s Day, Notre Dame didn’t have to wait nine months to write a better ending.
“We have a lot to learn from this game,” Freeman said. “The beauty of this thing is that we don’t have to wait 245 days. We have seven days for another opportunity, so we have to get back to work.
Notre Dame literally led most of the game, in front of the scoreboard for 32:40 to Ohio State’s 23:53. Of course, none of this matters, but it both underscores the purpose of Freeman’s game plan – shortening the game with long drives inflated Irish time ahead – and the literal nature of the collapse, with the Buckeyes ahead for the final 15:17, then deploying essentially the same plan as Notre Dame, something no one else could have expected before kick-off.
“We have to stop the race,” Freeman said. “Late in the game we knew they were heading the ball and we couldn’t stop it. It’s a place where we need to improve.
QUOTES OF THE NIGHT
Notre Dame made Buchner and lead linebacker Jack Kiser available to the media after the game. Both tried to take responsibility for shortcomings on the other side of the ball. Ohio State scored 14 points in the second half? Buchner’s comment above “I can’t return the ball to their attack.”
The Irish didn’t score at all in the second half? Kiser pointed out the Buckeyes had possession for 19:34 of the second half.
“We have to do a better job of bringing the ball back to our attack and giving them a chance,” he said. “We are going to own this.
“It’s something we need to work on and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
12:13 p.m. — Goal on the field of Notre-Dame. Blake Grupe 33 yards. Notre Dame 3, Ohio State 0. (5 plays, 71 yards, 2:42)
5:32 a.m. – Ohio State landing. Emeka Egbuka 31 yard pass from CJ Stroud. Noah Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 7, Notre Dame 3. (4 plays, 54 yards, 1:34)
11:56 am – Landing of Notre-Dame. Audric Esteem running 1 meter. Group PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Ohio State 7. (10 plays, 87 yards, 5:10)
0:17 – Ohio State landing. Xavier Johnson passes 24 yards from Stroud. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 70 yards, 4:33)
4:51 a.m. – Ohio State landing. Miyan Williams rush for 2 yards. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 21, Notre Dame 10. (14 plays, 95 yards, 7:06)