Notre Dame Ohio St Football

Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer celebrates after a special teams tackle during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. 

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame found success at the end of the Brian Kelly Era by winning the games it was supposed to win. After a string of notable hiccups in such games early in Kelly's tenure, the Irish were as reliable as a metronome against inferior (on paper) opponents more recently, winning 42 straight against unranked teams in the final half-decade of Kelly's tenure. Notre Dame has not lost such a game since November 2016 and the lack of losses to teams below the upper tier of college football has helped the Irish rack up a program-record five straight 10-win seasons.

Will that tendency hold under new coach Marcus Freeman? We'll start to find out today. After dropping the season-opener at then-No. 2 Ohio State, the Irish (0-1) return to South Bend looking to get their 2022 home schedule off to a good start. They begin the Notre Dame Stadium slate this afternoon against Sun Belt Conference foe Marshall (1-0), which pasted FCS Norfolk State 55-3 in Week 1. It's the first home game of Freeman's tenure and it sounds as though it will be an emotional day for the first-year head coach.

"I'm excited, really, for my first home game as the head coach here in Notre Dame Stadium," Freeman said this week. "It's something you dream about. Ever since I had been named head coach, I've been looking forward to this moment, to be able to lead our team into this stadium.”

Before the game, Freeman and the Irish attended mass as a team at the Basilica, a tradition Freeman remembered from his recruiting trip to Notre Dame as a prospective college player in the mid-2000s. Kelly did away with the team mass – Freeman was surprised to find the team not holding it when he arrived as defensive coordinator last season – but the new coach has brought it back, starting today. 

Freeman is still looking for his first victory as Irish head coach after starting 0-2 with losses to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl and then the Buckeyes. Those losses were understandable if not acceptable, but a third straight loss to straight the Freeman Era would do much to damage the narrative the new coach has tried to set: that of a program that is continuing its recent run of success while filling in the gaps necessary to take a step up. The Irish learned in the loss to the Buckeyes that step up has not yet arrived (though there's plenty of time for it to do so). To avoid a step down, however, Notre Dame has to continue winning games like the one it faces today.

Marshall will not make it easy. True, the Thundering Herd's Week 1 win was against an FCS opponent, one that has never won an FCS playoff game to boot. But you can only play the team in front of you and Marshall dominated as thoroughly as it possibly could have. The Herd outgained the Spartans 612-114 and ran for 380 yards – a pair of running backs, Ethan Payne and Khalan Laborn had more than 100 yards apiece – while holding Norfolk State to 30 yards on 31 carries. Not to be outdone, Thundering Herd quarterback Henry Colombi, who transferred from Texas Tech after playing significant snaps in 2020 and 2021, went 24 for 26 for 205 yards and a touchdown in his first Marshall appearance. If Notre Dame is looking for an easy get-well game after losing to the Buckeyes, the Irish likely won't find it today.

The key for Notre Dame today is to get its offense on track. Freeman all but admitted he put some limitations on the unit against the Buckeyes, giving it a directive to slow the ball down and try to control the clock against the explosive Scarlet and Gray. Freeman promised the Irish will be more explosive this week, though it's unclear exactly what that will entail. It could mean a little more creativity in the run game, some more shots downfield from quarterback Tyler Buchner (though there weren't really a dearth of those against Ohio State) or just a somewhat faster pace. Look for the Irish to try to establish the run early against the Thundering Herd with a combination of traditional run plays and then Buchner on quarterback pin and pull, which was less effective against the Buckeyes than it might be against some of the other teams on Ohio State's schedule. The Irish will also try to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers and get more of them involved after Buchner completed just five passes to wideouts (none with more than one catch) against Ohio State. It will help Notre Dame, too, to have left guard and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson back from his foot sprain and anchoring a line that has room for improvement after struggling to open holes for the run game in Week 1. After Audric Estime unexpectedly led the Irish in carries last week and looked strong doing it, it will be interesting to see whether he stays atop the depth chart and, if so, how Notre Dame utilizes the speedy Chris Tyree, who was the projected No. 1 running back this season. 

If Notre Dame is the team it looked like against Ohio State, it should win this game and win it fairly handily. If the Irish struggle or – gasp – lose, it will be time to significantly modify expectations for this season. A loss wouldn't doom the Marcus Freeman Era, but it would certainly be an unpleasant indicator of how far Notre Dame still has to go. 

College Sportswriter

Dylan Sinn is a College Sportswriter, covering mainly Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame, as well local colleges in northeast Indiana and Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball. He is a graduate of Indiana University and an AP Top 25 football voter.