Notre Dame defense keeps Ohio State offense in check, but still not enough for Irish – NBC Sports

Notre Dame defense keeps Ohio State offense in check, but still not enough for Irish - NBC Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Hollywood wrote the beginning of the Marcus Freeman Era at Notre Dame, it would have deemed this script too misleading, too empty, too tight for a typical sports movie. The No. 5 Irish led Freeman’s alma mater for much of Saturday night, but the dynamic Ohio State offense finally broke through late in the third quarter to quell the upset bid, 21-10.

Until then, Notre Dame (0-1) followed the exact script that Freeman wrote earlier in the week, although his obviously had a different ending than a second loss in two games as the head coach of Notre Dame.

“There is no such thing as a moral victory,” he said. “We did not execute. … We have to be able to finish when it matters most. That 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 fast start. A 54-yard completion on the first snap of the game fit that tone. The father of six said he wanted Notre Dame to slow down the game 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 an award for controlling – directing – the game.

“We knew we weren’t going to try to outplay them,” Freeman said. “We’re 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 kickoff completion to sophomore Lorenzo Styles was the only successful play on Notre Dame’s first drive, but the Irish continued to crack the scoreboard first with a 33-yard field goal by Arkansas State transfer Blake Grupe. Buchner’s first career start opened with eight consecutive completions for 128 yards, including an acrobatic, tip-top catch of former walk-on Matt Salerno, but then Buchner fell off suddenly, finishing 2-of-10 for 49 yards.

That Salerno fiery drive ended with a one-yard touchdown plunge by the sophomore running back Owl Esteem, lined up as a fullback in a traditional I formation. That gave Notre Dame a 10-7 lead, which it would hold deep into the third quarter before the heralded Buckeyes’ offense finally found its footing.

Playing without a star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba for most of the game after an apparent leg injury on Ohio State’s second drive, Heisman finalist quarterback CJ Stroud struggled to connect with his remaining targets downfield until he hit Xavier Johnson for a 24-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-11 in the final minute of the third quarter. Stroud finished with 223 yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-34 passing, 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 why he’s a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He’s a really good footballer, and they have a really good team.”

The Irish offensive plan was built around not having to chase multiple Stroud scores. When the Buckeyes scored just before the fourth quarter, Notre Dame had to respond to keep from trailing by multiple tallies. Buchner opened the drive by finding a fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy for 32 yards, but the Irish went backwards from there.

“Can’t give the ball back to their offense,” Buchner said.

That might as well have been the game.

“We executed until we had to get into the passing game and [went] three-and-out,” Freeman said. “We just didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”

Stroud & Co. then rallied, adding a long touchdown to not only balloon the lead but also to eat up most of the fourth quarter. That seven-minute possession marred Freeman’s script, but unlike a similar second-half frustration on New Year’s Day, Notre Dame doesn’t need to wait nine months to script 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 chance, so we have to get back to work.”

Notre Dame led for literally most of the game, ahead on the scoreboard for 32:40 compared to 23:53 for Ohio State. None of that matters, of course, but it underscores both the purpose of Freeman’s game plan – shortening the game with long drives inflated the Irish’s time up front – and the literal nature of the breakdown, the Buckeyes ahead for the final 15:17, by then essentially deploying the same plan as Notre Dame, something no one could have expected before kickoff . .

“We have to stop the run,” Freeman said. “Late in the game, we knew they were running the ball and we couldn’t stop it. This is somewhere we have to improve.”

Notre Dame committed Buchner and a senior linebacker Jack Kiser available to the media after the game. Both tried to shoulder the blame for the other side’s shortcomings on the ball. Ohio State scored 14 points in the second half? Buchner’s comment above about “Can’t get the ball back to their offense.”

The Irish don’t score at all in the second half? Kiser pointed to the Buckeyes having possession for 19:34 in the second half.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball back to our offense and giving them a chance,” he said. “We will own that.

“That’s something we have to work on and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

First Quarter
12:13 — Notre Dame field goal. Blake Grupe 33 yards. Notre Dame 3, Ohio State 0. (5 plays, 71 yards, 2:42)
5:32 – Ohio State touchdown. Emeka Egbuka 31-yard pass by CJ Stroud. Noah Ruggles PAT all right. Ohio State 7, Notre Dame 3. (4 plays, 54 yards, 1:34)

Second Quarter
11:56 – Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estime 1-yard rush. Group PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Ohio State 7. (10 plays, 87 yards, 5:10)

Third Quarter
0:17 – Ohio State touchdown. Xavier Johnson 24-yard pass from Stroud. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 70 yards, 4:33)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 – Ohio State touchdown. Williams soup 2-yard rush. Ruggles PAT good. Ohio State 21, Notre Dame 10. (14 plays, 95 yards, 7:06)

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