FIRST DEPLETED, THEN DEVASTATED
Jarron Jones was able to give one series. His backup Daniel Cage less than a handful. Nose tackle No. 3 Jerry Tillery was suspended Friday and as for the trio’s ringleader Sheldon Day? Violently ill Thursday night after receiving X-Rays on what was believed to be a broken foot earlier that afternoon.
“We had to have him on medicine and IVs to make it through the game,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “That's the kind of captain he is. He's unbelievable. He gave us everything he had today. He was on IVs all morning.”
Day’s foot wasn’t broken, but Notre Dame’s defense was, especially after the nation’s best linebacker Jaylon Smith was lost to a first quarter knee injury.
Fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace eventually replaced Smith on the weak side, though only after No. 2 WLB Te’Von Coney was subsequently lost to injury as well.
“He’s the Predator. He’s the praying mantis out there,” said Grace of Smith’s absence. “Things definitely go a lot smoother because he can make a lot of plays other guys can’t make.”
It was evident throughout Ohio State’s 496-yard outing, one buoyed by a chain-moving attack that was successful on 10 of its first 14 third- and fourth-down situations.
“You lose a guy like that early on, it significantly affects what you're doing defensively,” Kelly added.
SAME OLD SONG
Welcome to Slow Start, Part V. And as with most sequels, they’re unnecessary and unwelcomed.
In five of Notre Dame’s last six losses (Stanford last month the lone exception), Kelly’s Irish we doomed by at least an 11-point first quarter deficit.
14-0 to Clemson in October this fall, then 21-0 to USC, 24-3 to Arizona State, and 14-3 to Louisville last November. Today it was 14-0 to the No. 7 Buckeyes.
“I thought they ran the ball effectively, obviously their first series was outstanding,” said Kelly of the Buckeyes blitzkrieg beginning. “They ran the ball effectively right down the field. So I just think that they executed very well early on. It was the difference in the game really, those 14 points early. We had to play catch-up from there.”
Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer blamed the squad’s lack of early execution for the 13-point defeat.
“We came out with the right offensive game plan. We came out with the right defensive game plan. If we can come out and do our jobs, attack better, this game would have went the other way,” Kizer said.
NO EXCUSES ON THE FLIP SIDE
Though Notre Dame’s defense is most culpable for Friday’s defeat on paper it’s likewise true the Irish offense failed to hold serve in a contest it knew well would be a high-scoring affair.
The Irish were held without a point in the first quarter for the first time this season and managed just 121 rushing yards despite fielding the same healthy offensive front, backfield, and set of receivers the riddled Stanford’s defense for 299 rushing yards, more than eight yards per carry, and nearly 18 yards per pass completion.
Notre Dame’s offense was likewise awarded the benefit of an ejection to Ohio State’s best defender, All-America linebacker Joey Bosa, the result of a second quarter targeting penalty when the future first round pick hit DeShone Kizer in the arm and chest with the crown of his helmet.
“Certainly you recognize when one of the top players is out of the game…we didn't change anything in the game plan, said Kelly. “We got a little bit of a lift because (an interception was negated by the foul), plus we had 15 yards tacked on. We had a little bit of momentum because of the play. But you're not really thinking, ‘Oh, Bosa is out of the game, until a little bit later.’”
Kelly’s offense finished with 405 yards on 70 snaps, the former representing the second-lowest total of the season. (Wake Forest curiously held the Irish to 282 yards albeit on only 49 snaps.)
The Irish managed to rally from a 28-7 deficit near intermission and cut Ohio State’s lead to 28-21 midway through the third quarter, 38-28 late in the fourth.
“As has been the case all year, this is a team in which there needs to be no message. You don’t have to say a word,” said Kizer of how the offense approached its early struggles and three-touchdown disadvantage. “We’ve never had to say anything and every time we’ve been put into that situation we’ve gone about it the same way and gotten ourselves out of it. We got things rolling when we needed to.”
It was again too little, too late.
Five times Notre Dame freshman kick returner C.J. Sanders fielded Ohio State kickoffs with a chance for return yardage. On each of the five he was stopped before reaching his own 17-yard line.
To put it bluntly, if Notre Dame’s 10 kick return blockers in front of Sanders today were road blocks, escaped convicts would roam the earth in perpetuity.
“This is a game of momentum; this is a game of rhythm,” said Kizer. “When they’re putting us back inside our own 20 it’s obviously a momentum change. (But) that’s part of it. That’s what makes this game fun. You want to have your backs to the wall in big games and come out victorious.
“Obviously this was a game in which we were backed up and I wasn’t able to put together the drives and wasn’t able to execute the way I was supposed to. As a team we weren’t able to do what we needed to do to get out of (bad situations).”
Despite benefitting from two kickoffs out of bounds by Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger (and subsequent spots the 35-yard line) Notre Dame’s average starting field position on 13 possessions was its own 20-yard line. Ohio State’s, conversely, was its own 35.
Hidden yards belonged to the Buckeyes, a reality which was too much to overcome with neither side of Notre Dame’s scrimmage winning their battles up front.