COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — No. 6 Ohio State faces its biggest test yet in a game that could define the Buckeyes 2023 season when they face No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend.
The first primetime game of quarterback Kyle McCord’s career pits him against a Fighting Irish defense that’s led in part by head coach and former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman.
The Buckeyes beat Notre Dame in week one last season, but plenty has changed in a year — most notably at quarterback where the Irish have a Heisman-caliber player in Sam Hartman. Below are the three things to know for Saturday’s top-10 showdown.
Kyle McCord vs. Sam Hartman
Fair or not, Kyle McCord’s short tenure as Ohio State’s quarterback will be weighed for how he plays against Notre Dame in primetime. He’s gotten better each week and is coming off a 63-10 win over Western Kentucky in which he threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns.
Coach Ryan Day’s message to McCord and the entire team has been simple: “Let it rip.” Day knows in games like this, the battle is won in the trenches and by the team that plays with more confidence. McCord says his preparation this week will allow him to play loose and not make the moment too big.
“I feel like when you put in a lot of work on and off the field you feel confident with what you’re going to do,” McCord said. “I think you earn the right to do that. With the work week we’ve put in so far, I think that everybody will have the confidence to go out there on Saturday night and just let it fly.”
On the other side, Notre Dame has a quarterback who’s in his sixth year and fourth as a starter. Sam Hartman is playing his first year for the Irish but started three years at Wake Forest. His experience has shown on the field this year: 1,061 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, zero interceptions, completing 71% of his passes. In his last year with the Demon Deacons, Hartman led an offense that averaged 35 points a game. Ohio State’s struggles to stop explosive plays last season is well documented and that will be put to the test on Saturday.
“Hartman is a veteran. He’s been around. He’s played a lot of football,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “Accurate, very intelligent. You know a lot of good attributes for a quarterback. He’s very good.”
There are some stats that can be misleading without proper context. One of those areas for Ohio State is team sacks. The Buckeyes only have five sacks this year, tied for 91st in the country, but a closer look shows there’s a reason they’re averaging just one a game. The teams who have played Ohio State so far have used the strategy of throwing the ball in three seconds or less.
“We just gotta keep doing what we’re doing up front. [We’ve got] talented hard working guys,” Knowles said. “We want the sacks and the quarterback hits but it’s also about getting the ball out on time. You know, making sure the ball gets out on time and we’ve been doing that.”
Notre Dame is not a team that will pass quickly just to avoid pressure. Hartman will trust his offensive line that came into the season with two new starters. Through four games, the Irish’s offensive line is tied for 20th in sacks allowed and rank No. 26 with 204.5 rushing yards per game. But Ohio State’s defensive front, which returned virtually every player from last year, tormented Notre Dame in last year’s win. The Buckeyes forced three sacks and six tackles for a loss while holding the rushing attack to 76 yards.
Notre Dame boasts one of the best running back sin the country in Audric Estime, who averages 8.3 yards per carry, third best in college football. Holding Notre Dame to 2.5 yards per carry like last year is unrealistic, but who wins at the line of scrimmage in this matchup will impact the outcome much in the same way it did in the Buckeyes’ back-to-back losses to Michigan.
Buckeye, Irish ties run deep
This game means a little bit more for several players and coaches on both sidelines. Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman played at Ohio State from 2005 to 2008 and led the Buckeyes to four Big Ten titles and consecutive national championship appearances. His first coaching job came at his alma mater in 2010 where he developed a close relationship with Luke Fickell who later brought on Freeman to be Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020. His very fist game as Notre Dame’s head coach was that 21-10 loss to his former team, and he’ll be eager to show his team can win a national title by getting a statement win over OSU.
Meanwhile, former Pickerington Central standout Lorenzo Styles played two years for the Irish but transferred to Ohio State and moved to cornerback. He joined his younger brother, Sonny, who starts at safety for the Buckeyes.
On the other side, former Ohio State defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste left Columbus for South Bend for more playing time and a larger role. He’ll go up against his former teammates who will try to prevent him from getting to McCord.
As well, former Ohio State All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis came back to his alma mater after spending one season under Freeman as a graduate assistant.
“I had to find out whether I wanted to do it and so I just took an opportunity and I’m thankful to Marcus obviously for giving me that opportunity and trusting me,” Laurinaitis said in February.
Laurinaitis and Freeman were in the same freshman class at OSU and were in each other’s weddings, so when Laurinaitis made the decision to come to Ohio State as a graduate assistant this year he was worried how it would affect their friendship.
“Thankfully Marcus was great about it. He basically said if that’s where you want to be and your family wants to be, then go back home,” he said. “He was supportive in the sense like our friendship isn’t going to be altered by this and so I’m confident that we’ll continue to stay close.”