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Football: Buckeyes have a ‘pep in their step’ ahead of matchup versus Notre Dame

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JT Tuimoloau (44) and Tyliek Williams (91) celebrate a play on September 16, 2023 in the game against WKU. Credit: Lily Hynes | Assistant Photo Editor

Ohio State dominated Western Kentucky from start to finish in its 63-10 victory Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

Freshman cornerback Jermaine Mathews Jr. joined in on the fun, sealing the deal late in the fourth quarter with a 58-yard pick six — the first of his young career.

Amid his celebration, a referee threw a flag for sideline interference, not because of any player’s actions, but rather Mickey Marotti’s — the associate athletic director for football sports — performance.

Marotti crossed the sideline while the ball was still in play. Head coach Ryan Day said although the action resulted in a 5-yard penalty, Mariotti’s emotion has propelled the team this season, leading the Buckeyes into their matchup against No. 8 Notre Dame.

“That’s our mentality, as a team,” Day said in Tuesday’s press conference. “It isn’t just the leaders. It isn’t just the coaches; it’s everybody. And that’s the way we’re going to be this week.”

Despite dropping three spots in the A ssociated P ress college football poll since week one, the Buckeyes have continued to uplift one another in practice and on the sidelines. These emotions have spilled down from the coaching staff and into the locker room, affecting junior quarterback Kyle McCord.

Day said McCord’s confidence, on and off the field, has grown since being named the starting quarterback Sept. 12. McCord had his “best week of practice,” and Day said while he’s not sure whether it was a coincidence, he thought McCord performed well.

McCord threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against a Hilltopper defense that forced six turnovers in just two games. Day said the performance was a confidence boost for the ‘young’ quarterback, especially as the Buckeyes travel to South Bend, Indiana, to face their biggest test.

“Hopefully, he can play his best football here this week,” Day said. “But I think there was a little pep in his step for sure.”

The Buckeyes’ defense also had an extra boost, staying a step ahead of Western Kentucky’s receivers. They recorded six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said he learned much from Saturday’s performance, especially the secondary consisting of junior cornerback Denzel Burke and graduate safety Josh Proctor. They successfully contained two premier talents in senior quarterback Austin Reed and junior wide receiver Malachi Corley, who Knowles said will soon play in the NFL.

“It gets harder and harder every week, but that’s why they’re at The Ohio State [University], and me too,” Knowles said. “You take from it that, ‘Okay, in the passing game, we’re going to contest, and we’re going to compete.’ I think that’s what we want to do this year.”

On the other hand, the Buckeyes are still working with a relatively inexperienced offensive line, and McCord, who has minimal experience playing against highly ranked opponents.

This will cause jitters, especially in an environment like South Bend against the Fighting Irish, which has one of the largest fan bases in college football.

Day said the preparation to manage these emotions starts in practice, emphasizing the importance of starting the week off strong. He said with two of the biggest teams in the Midwest facing off, the game will draw major attention and the players are ready for it.

“Our guys are really excited for this game,” Day said. “You can see it even yesterday. Guys buzzing around. And so now we’re going to have a great week of practice, and it’s going to come down to who wants to compete more.”

Day said he was most pleased with the “energy, passion and overall intensity” from both sides of the ball in Saturday’s victory. The Hilltoppers posed a challenge as a pass-heavy team, but ultimately, the Buckeyes passed the test.

Day said the team “has no choice” but will need to continue matching this intensity if it wants to come out with a win Saturday, especially against a top-10 team on the road.

“These are great moments,” Day said. “This is the highest level of college football, and all eyes will be on this game, and that’s the way we love it.”

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