South Bend, Indiana- The Kardiac Kids, The Drive, The Shot, and now, The Final Drive. Not much can describe nor top the moment-to-moment roller coaster that was the last drive of the Ohio State-Notre Dame showdown on Saturday night.
The Fighting Irish and Buckeyes went toe to toe in what looked on paper to be a heavyweight title fight where both teams would swing for the fences and land shot after shot. Initially, this game was predicted to be a barn burner, but it ended up as a clash of defenses and did not disappoint. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles should be given a medal for how well his defensive players were able to keep with the Irish and force Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman to make tough decisions.
The Buckeyes went into South Bend as slight favorites. As the weekend unfolded, the vast majority of the media started to doubt whether or not Ryan Day, Kyle McCord, and the rest would come out of South Bend without embarrassment, much less a win. As the first half came and went, both teams failed to put points on the board, and the game looked like it would come down to the wire. The Buckeye defense failed to fluster Irish QB Sam Hartman but did hold them to only one significant yardage play through the air. The Buckeyes took away nearly every play on the ground, forcing the Domers to become one-dimensional. The first half ended with Ohio State up 3-0 in a tightly contested game.
The second half would open with a bang as the Buckeyes came out on defense and promptly stopped Hartman on a fourth and short conversion attempt. All the momentum was swinging for the Silver Bullets. On the next play from scrimmage, McCord would hand the ball off to stud running back TreVeyon Henderson, and he would scamper for 61 yards on his only score of the evening to give the Bucks a two-score lead midway through the third quarter. Henderson would amass 104 yards on the ground, averaging over seven yards per carry.
The wind had left the sails of the Irish and their faithful fans. One small problem: the six-point block that sprung Henderson also led to a scary moment on the field. While Bucks receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. pushed his blocking assignment out of the way for Henderson, Irish DB Xavier Watts leapt, missed the tackle, and rolled Harrison Jr. The elite Buckeye receiver was left reeling on the ground as the Scarlet and Gray celebrated Henderson’s run. He would come out of the game and immediately into the medical tent, where he received treatment and what appeared to be copious amounts of tape to his ankle, foot, and calf. Although MHJ would return to the game, the damage was done.
The Fighting Irish would score 14 unanswered points, eating up fifteen minutes between the two scoring drives, as the Ohio State defense looked lost and confused. Meanwhile, Kyle McCord appeared overwhelmed and out of sorts on offense. With time winding down, the Buckeyes attempted a bold, albeit foolish, jet sweep on a failed fourth down conversion. All signs pointed to disaster. The life had been drained on the Buckeye sidelines. The Irish would take the ball back with less than five minutes left in the game.
All the Irish had to do was hold on to the ball, kill the clock, and become heroes. South Bend was electric; chants of “Let’s go Irish!” filled the air as the clock dwindled down; Sam Hartman was in complete control until he wasn’t. As the famous Lee Corso always says, “Not so fast, my friend.” Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles trusted his defensive linemen, and they came through at the most crucial time. Specifically, soon-to-be NFL superstar JT Tuimoloau got a tackle for loss (should have been a sack) and then a pass breakup to put the Irish on fourth and long, giving McCord’s offense one last shot.
With less than two minutes on the clock, down by four, needing a touchdown to win the game, Kyle McCord orchestrated one of the gutsiest comebacks in school history. Although this drive was not technically sound or even pretty, the mental and physical toughness McCord showed in only his fifth start speaks volumes about him and his team. During this drive alone, he was able to complete passes to different receivers, converting thirds and long, as well as a fourth down. With only seconds left on the clock, McCord tried to thread the needle one last time and narrowly missed Harrison Jr. From the one-yard line, the last play would come down to a handoff to running back Chip Trayanum. There may have only been ten men on that field for the Fighting Irish, but it appeared as though all ten were on top of Trayanum, yet he wouldn’t be denied. Barely, yet undoubtedly, the ball crossed the plane of the goal line, securing the score and eventual win for Ohio State.
Ultimately, most people will talk about quarterback Kyle McCord’s gameplay versus late-game heroics. After waiting patiently for his opportunity to become the starter, this was McCord’s first real test as the leader of the Buckeyes. His calm demeanor and gutsy decision-making accounted for a final drive that may go down in the history books in Columbus.
Ryan Day is undoubtedly the right man for the job in Columbus and a true Buckeye. He has the poise and determination of some of the all-time greats. He makes the tough decisions look easy. Yes, Coach Day makes a head-scratching call now and again, but there’s no denying his results. A record of 49-6 (the six being against a rival and CFP-caliber teams) should speak for itself. Stats and film will do the rest of the talking for Ryan Day, but his love and compassion for this group in Columbus will forever stand out and paint a clear picture of dedication and toughness.
I thought they were pretenders at the beginning of the season. I didn’t think a second-tier ACC program quarterback would make any difference in the Fighting Irish and their hopes of being a contender. Sam Hartman promptly shut me up on Saturday night. The courage he demonstrated standing firm in the pocket while all hell broke loose spoke volumes, and if he decides to play his next 50 games at the next level, he will have tremendous success in the League. There isn’t much to say about the Domers and their offensive line. It happens to be the one position group I have always admired. There is some real talent in the trenches, and the folks in South Bend should be tremendously proud of how clean they kept Hartman’s jersey (even if it was a masterclass in holding).
Lastly, Marcus Freeman is already proving to be a great head coach, and as he develops his style and schemes, the Irish will grow with him. They may even surprise some people this season and sneak into the playoffs if a few things fall their way.
(4) Ohio State 4-0 (1-0) will be on a bye week, returning to action and Big 10 conference play at home against Maryland 4-0 (1-0) on Saturday, 10/7/23 at Noon Eastern.
(11) Notre Dame 4-1 will face off against (17) Duke 4-0 (1-0) in Blue Devil territory Saturday night, 9/30/23 at 7:30 PM Eastern.
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)