CFB: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Week 4 Preview

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

The week of reckoning is upon us. Notre Dame have reached week 4 unscathed, as expected. Now they face their biggest test so far, a visit from Ohio State. Let’s take an in-depth look at all things Irish ahead of the matchup.

Looking back at last week

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For the second week in a row, Notre Dame fans came away from a game feeling significantly worse about the performance than a subsequent review of the box score might reasonably warrant.  As ought to have been expected, the team, like the fans, had more than half an eye on the following week and went through the motions in large chunks of the game. 

Without captain and middle linebacker JD Bertrand, the defense often tackled poorly and was repeatedly gashed up the middle by the Chippewas’ run game. While blitzing frequently, they generated zero turnovers and struggled to register just two sacks and four tackles for loss. And all this while facing CMU’s backup QB after starter Bert Emanuel Jr. was ruled out.  Yet, with all that said, they gave up only 17 points and held the visitors to 3 of 13 on third down. 

The offensive line had another far-from-perfect afternoon, but when they blocked well, Audric Estimé was able to take advantage en route to a career-best 176 yards on the ground, with a couple of free hurdles thrown in for good measure. And, while Sam Hartman ‘only’ completed 16 passes, he threw for 330 yards, 3 TDs and rushed for another score. 

That the Irish racked up 40+ points for the fifth consecutive game while not reaching any of their top gears is certainly a bonus. As was the first repeated use of the deep ball, with Tobias Merriweather and Chris Tyree catching 75+ yard TD passes. 

So, Notre Dame moves on to 4-0, in line with most expectations. And now the fun really begins.

The week ahead

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#6 Ohio State Buckeyes (Notre Dame Stadium); 7.30pm EDT; 12.30am IST/BST

So far…so good.  #9 ranked Notre Dame has begun a season with four 40+ point games for the first time since 1900 (when two of the opponents were high schools). They’re among only a few teams to have won every game by at least 21 points. They’re averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground and over 300 through the air. Quarterback Sam Hartman has thrown for 13 TDs and run for another pair while throwing zero interceptions, which is nice. 

But now for the moment of truth. In theory, a (narrow) defeat on Saturday night does not end the Irish’s playoff hopes. Still, to continue the journey to where Marcus Freeman wants to go, they need to put down a monumental marker at home to an Ohio State side that hasn’t lost to the Irish in five previous meetings since 1936. 

OSU Head Coach Ryan Day finally settled on Kyle McCord as his starting QB, and the junior has completed 70% of his passes this season for 6 TDs and 1 INT. This will be his first road game as a starter, so his ability to deal with the hostile environment will be a key factor, as will the fact he has the best WR room in college football to throw to. 

The Irish have one of the best CB tandems in CFB and one of the best pass defenses in the country. Something will have to give. 

Buckeyes tight end Cade Stover could be McCord’s new best friend. Last season, Notre Dame’s inability to stop the run in the second half was crucial to the Buckeyes’ victory. How they handle TreVeyon Henderson, currently averaging 6.4 yards per carry, is vital to Irish hopes. 

In OSU’s first three games, they have been surprisingly poor on third down, converting less than 33% of the time. In last year’s game, they were 7-13.  ND’s defense has improved significantly in third down stops through four games this season, with opponents only converting 33%.  The ability of the Irish defense to get McCord and his receivers off the field will be essential for an ND victory. 

Last year, the Irish struggled on offense, with Tyler Buchner making his first start in such a big road game.  Notre Dame has upgraded hugely at the position, but the Buckeyes’ defense also looks a step up this time around. They have four- and five-star talent at all three levels and have proved more than stingy in their opening three games. Though without facing a combo like Hartman and Audric Estimé. Or Joe Alt and the Notre Dame OL.

Expect the Irish offense to sometimes struggle and get behind the chains on drives. But their ability to overcome this via big plays, as demonstrated against NC State and CMU, will, I suspect, ultimately decide the final score.

Game Prediction

Notre Dame 27-24 Ohio State

Last year’s game was very close until late in the fourth quarter. I expect similar tension this time around, right up to the final zeroes on the clock. Ultimately, it will come down to who makes the biggest plays and turns the ball over the least. ND opponents have fumbled nine times already this season. ND forced seven of them and has recovered zero. They say it is unlucky to be superstitious, but hoping for some regression to the mean regarding those statistics is not ridiculous.

With actual, proper home-field advantage and the better player at the most important position on the field, I can see Hartman leading the Irish to what may well go down as one of the most important wins in Marcus Freeman’s Notre Dame career. 

Where to watch:

Sky Sports NFL (Channel 407 on Sky); coverage starts at 12:30am IST/BST 

NBC (in the USA)

Playoff Picture

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Week 3 did not really see any definitive playoff-related movement, except perhaps Tennessee effectively bowing out early and Alabama suggesting they are a pale imitation of most previous Nick Saban teams. Good news for Georgia and LSU regarding their chances of making the SEC Championship Game, but not necessarily for their overall end-of-season resumés. 

Week 4, however, is where the rubber well and truly meets the road. Hour after hour of Top 25 matchups to look forward to across all the top Power 5 conferences. And the SEC. 

From a Notre Dame perspective, victories for Clemson, UCLA, Ole Miss and Iowa would be helpful, though not favoured by Vegas.  And as we head into the meat of conference play, the list of true contenders should start to emerge and narrow. Based on the results, it is shaping up to be one of the more interesting seasons in the last decade.