When the Irish and the Buckeyes take the field this Friday, the two offenses may be fairly similar with perhaps a slight edge going to the Irish, but the game’s eventual outcome will be more a tale of how each side’s defense handles these two explosive offenses. The season-long numbers provide a distinct edge to Ohio State. Let’s consider how each team ranks nationally in several important categories (actual value in parentheses):
|Points Per Game Allowed||2 (14.0)||30 (22.4)|
|Red Zone Scoring Percentage||38 (78.57%)||30 (76.47%)|
|Opponent Yards Per Play||2 (4.2)||57 (5.4)|
|Third Down Conversion Percentage||25 (34.67%)||18 (33.14%)|
|First Downs Allowed/Game||9 (16)||23 (17.9)|
|Rushing Yards/Attempt||10 (3.4)||74 (4.5)|
|Pass Yards/Attempt||5 (5.7)||52 (6.9)|
|Sack Percentage||16 (8.35%)||61 (6.03%)|
|Takeaways/Game||72 (1.6)||114 (1.1)|
Simply put: the numbers strongly favor Ohio State. Whether considering the absolute bottom line of points allowed per game, where Ohio State’s been virtually the best in the country, or some of the secondary indicators, it’s tough to find a single area where Notre Dame has any sort of advantage. The Irish defense has been at its best situationally this season. You can read that to mean – in the red zone and on third downs. While the Irish managed to edge out Ohio State in these two categories, it feels like at best this puts the Irish on even footing situationally rather than wielding an advantage which can be exploited.
Perhaps more concerning is the expected showdown between Ohio State’s high powered rushing attack versus the Irish’s rushing defense. ND ranks just 74th nationally allowing 4.5 yards per attempt. Ohio State sits 8th nationally (2 spots behind Notre Dame) averaging 5.6 yards per rushing attempt on offense. Whereas the Buckeyes 10th ranked rushing defense versus ND’s rushing offense feels like a clash of titans, strength on strength, the reverse scenario is the single largest concern for fans hoping for a win.
If you’re optimistic and into talking about psychology and stuff, then Monday’s news of Zeke Elliott being cited for multiple driving violations including Driving on a Suspended License might be enough to persuade you that Ohio State’s most important offensive player might come out distracted or unmotivated. Hey, I hope you’re right. However, the week after griping and complaining and being perceived as a “distraction” following Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State, Elliott went out and averaged 7.1 yards per carry, rushing for over 200 yards and scoring 2 touchdowns versus rival Michigan. He’s got a short, but impressive, track record of Jameis Winston-vision: bulls eye focused on the field, Stevie Wonder blind off it.
Elliott also wasn’t wrong for criticizing the play calling in the Michigan State game. Urban Meyer admitted as much. In the 24 games since Elliott became the primary back for the Buckeyes following Week 3 of the 2014 season, he’s reached 100 yards rushing in 20 of 24 games. The Buckeyes have never lost when Elliott rushes for 100 or more yards.
This is not to say that Notre Dame is doomed to fail. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day are both 2015 All-Americans whereas the Ohio State defense, despite all of its team accolades boasts none. The suspension of defensive tackle Adolphus Washington following an arrest for solicitation certainly harms the Buckeye unit as well. Romeo Okwara’s second half of the season has been the best display of pass rushing by an Irish player since Stephon Tuitt’s departure several seasons ago.
However, going much deeper into the personnel game will not improve your optimism. Ohio State has an NFL caliber player at virtually every position led by a strong candidate for number one overall selection (should he elect to forgo remaining college eligibility) in Joey Bosa. Linebackers Darron Lee and Joshua Perry, cornerback Eli Apple, and safety Vonn Bell provide the Buckeyes an embarrassment of talent. You want to make an argument that Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day are 2 of the 3 best defenders that will play in the Fiesta Bowl, I’m willing to listen. The problem is that Ohio State probably has numbers 4-10 regardless of the order you eventually decide upon.
So, aside from the “inspired performance” angle or the “Ohio State doesn’t want to be here” angle, what can Irish fans rest some hope on when comparing the defenses? Let’s start with the Ezekiel Elliott part of the story.
There’s no question that Elliott is an immensely talented runner who will almost assuredly end up as either the first or second back off the board in next year’s draft. He’s a physical, dominating back who gets better as the game goes on. However, he’s hardly the first dynamic game changing player the Irish will have seen this season. Elliott finished 8th in Heisman voting a couple of weeks ago. If you’re willing to include last year’s Music City Bowl game versus LSU, the Irish defense has faced 4 of the 7 players that finished ahead of Elliott in roughly a year’s time (Christian McCaffrey, Deshaun Watson, Keenan Reynolds, and Leonard Fournette).
The bright side is that in all three games that occurred this season, the Irish defense did a pretty good job of limiting the damage of these game breakers. Neither Reynolds nor McCaffrey found his way to the endzone, and Watson had (monsoooooooooon?) depressed numbers. Fournette, who from a physical and style standpoint, is most similar to Elliott was a different story versus the infirmary defense that was left standing at the end of last season. The key point though is that VanGorder and these Irish players should be well accustomed to preparing and accounting for elite level offensive players. They are battle tested versus the best players college football has to offer, which gets to my second reason for optimism….
While Ohio State will be the 5th opponent Notre Dame’s faced who ranks in the top 30 offensively in points per game, Notre Dame will be just the third such opponent for the Buckeyes. But, it’s not just the points per game piece but the type of team. The other two opponents ranking in the top 30 on the Buckeyes schedule are Indiana and Western Michigan – Two teams who’ve had nice offensive years but are always vulnerable to physical disadvantages that are exposed when facing teams that recruit at a much different level. By contrast, the 4 teams Notre Dame has already seen this season who match the same offensive criteria are Clemson, Stanford, USC, and Navy. The first 3 all being teams that recruit at a higher level than either an Indiana or a Western Michigan.
The Irish will easily be the most dynamic, explosive, and efficient offense the Buckeyes have seen all season. Notre Dame’s 6.9 yards per play offensively for the season is 5th nationally. You have to go all the way down to 33rd nationally to find Indiana which is the top Power 5 team Ohio State’s previously seen. Stanford and Clemson both rank higher than Ohio State on a yards per play basis. Sure, you can’t ignore the relative ease with which Stanford moved the ball versus Notre Dame, but at least the Irish defense has been exposed to an elite offense more recently than Ohio State’s squad.
And, it’s not just that Notre Dame’s seen more high end teams, but also consider that just 2 of Notre Dame’s opponents (Boston College and Wake Forest) ranked lower than 80th nationally in yards per play. By contrast, an astounding 8 of Ohio State’s opponents ranked 80th or worse. Let me re-state that an even more compelling way: Ohio State’s played just 4 teams all year that rank in the top 80 in yards per play offensively…the best of which were Indiana and Western Michigan.
For all the numerical and talent reasons to give a decided edge to Ohio State defensively, there are more than a few reasons to question how substantial the advantage may really be. For an Ohio State team that slept walked through a lot of their season and coasted by on raw talent, Notre Dame will prove to be a different level of challenge. If the Irish can break the Buckeyes defense, they might be able to force the game into a shootout where Notre Dame has a better chance to win outright.
Here’s to (kind of) hoping that maybe both defenses will fail.