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Football: Defense comes up ‘huge’ against Notre Dame

The Lantern
Junior defensive end JT Tuimololau (44) celebrates while leaving the field after No. 6 Ohio State’s 17-14 win over No. 9 Notre Dame. Credit: Caleb Blake | Photo Editor

Ohio State’s defense had yet to allow a point in the second half of the 2023-24 season.

That quickly changed Saturday night when No. 9 Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the second half, seizing a 14-10 lead with eight minutes left in the game.

The Buckeyes’ defense was given one final opportunity to grant their offense a chance at a dramatic finish, and they stepped up, resulting in a 17-14 win for Ohio State. After the game, head coach Ryan Day praised the defense for their perseverance and the key plays that led to victory.

“I don’t think there were very many big plays and that was a big thing going into the season,” Day said. “They played tough and they didn’t give up explosive plays. Hats off to the defense, a great win.”

The Fighting Irish took the lead for the first time against the Buckeyes with just eight minutes and 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Sam Hartman threw a 2-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr., who was left wide open in the end zone, resulting in a touchdown.

The team used a balanced combination of running and passing plays to control the clock and maintain possession for a seven-minute drive.

Still, Ohio State’s offense had a chance to regain the lead, marching over 70 yards down the field but failing to convert on fourth-and-1 on a sweep by junior wide receiver Emeka Egbuka.

Egbuka said he took the play “really hard” but was confident the offense would get another opportunity.

“I knew that our defense was playing phenomenal the entire game,” Egbuka said. “I knew they would give us another chance. They’re one of the top defenses in the country and they showed that on the last drive. “

The play may have deflated most teams, but for the Ohio State defense, they knew they had another opportunity to come up big, with junior defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau at the head of attack.

Tuimoloau and cornerback Davison Igbninosun combined for a 5-yard loss on Hartman on a play action, and Tuimoloau broke up the following play on sophomore running back Jadarian Price.

Graduate safety Josh Proctor made a much-needed tackle, and senior safety Lathan Ransom’s quarterback rush led to the Buckeyes regaining possession and completing the comeback with 1:26 left on the clock.

“The momentum was going with Notre Dame at one point, but our guys stuck their foot in the ground,” Day said. “J.T. [Tuimoloau] made a big-time play, and the guts of our team to go and win that game on the road. You’re going to tell me this team’s not physical and not tough, you’re wrong.”

Questions about Ohio State’s run defense loomed ahead of its game against Notre Dame despite its strong rankings in total and passing yards.

It is no surprise as the Fighting Irish have one of the most lethal running backs in the country — Audric Estime. He’s averaged 130 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks second-best in the country, and his yardage has been increasing with each game.

Let history tell it: Estime would have another big game. However, the Buckeyes stopped that from happening, particularly early on, as they held the junior to 70 yards on 14 rush attempts.

Estime’s first run resulted in a 1-yard loss after a tackle by junior defensive tackle Tyleik Williams on Notre Dame’s opening drive. The subsequent play yielded no gain, prompting head coach Marcus Freeman to make an immediate change. From then on, four other running backs took the field to try and create some separation, including Jeremiyah Love and Devyn Ford.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said the defense regained momentum and remained poised despite a flood of successful runs by Notre Dame later on in the ballgame.

“It’s just a matter of having guys who are tough and willing to fight even when we’re down,” Knowles said. “I always tell them ‘hey any of the bad plays are one me, all the good plays are on you.’ And I think they believe that, so they keep coming back.”

Ohio State made a crucial defensive play when sophomore safety Sonny Styles and Ransom teamed up to tackle Hartman on fourth-and-1 at Ohio State’s 39-yard line. The Buckeyes gained possession and quickly scored a touchdown from junior runningback TreVeyon Henderson’s 61-yard run, which was the game’s first touchdown.

Although Notre Dame struggled in the backfield during the game, they showed improvement as the game progressed, with a total of 123 rushing yards in the second half. However, their efforts were not enough to secure a win, as the Buckeyes managed to limit them to 175 rushing yards and zero passing yards in the second quarter.

Day said the game was reminiscent of Ohio State’s 21-10 win against Notre Dame last season. After yet another win, the Buckeyes’ sixth straight since 1995, Day hopes this will finally silence the naysayers.

“I get Ohio against the world, but we needed to go play like that today.” Day said. “We needed to win like that to stop that narrative that’s going on out there, because it’s not true. To win like that, the way we did, I think it’s going to do that. “

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