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Mike Lopresti | September 21, 2023

Ohio State, Notre Dame approach historic form ahead of rare South Bend showdown

The most successful walk-ons in recent college football history

Ohio State at Notre Dame. That ought to get the blood pumping in the college football universe, at least the part not already wearing Deion Sanders sunglasses.

The Irish are even bringing out their green uniforms again. That should tell you something.

The two sides have the rankings, of course, even if one team says po-ta-to and the other says po-tah-to. No. 6 Ohio State has allowed 20 points in going 3-0, its fewest after three games in 48 years. On the other side of the ball, No. 9 Notre Dame has put up 184 points in starting 4-0, the most through four games since 1914. By the way, notice something a little odd about the Irish schedule? They'll play fully half their regular season games — six — before the end of September.

They have the tonnage of their traditions. Ohio State is first in all-time winning percentage and second in all-time victories. Notre Dame is No. 4 in both. The Irish are No. 1 with 107 consensus All-Americans and 525 NFL draft picks. Ohio State is No. 2 with 92 All-Americans and No. 3 with 485 draftees. Each has had seven Heisman winners, tied with Oklahoma and USC for the most. And how do you like your famous helmet: Shiny gold or gray with buckeye stickers all over it?

They have the mixed blood of Marcus Freeman. He’s currently spending his second season in the steam bath that is football coach at Notre Dame. But 15 years ago he was an all-conference linebacker — at Ohio State.

Here’s what makes this even more special: They’ve played this game with only slightly more frequency than the appearance of the 17-year cicada, “This is an exciting series,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day was saying this week, “because it’s something that doesn’t happen very often.”

Seven times. That’s how many times they’ve tossed the coin together in recorded history, even though they’re not exactly in different hemispheres. Barely 250 miles apart. Notre Dame won the first two meetings and Ohio State the past five, including 21-10 last season in Columbus. It’s not like the Irish have dodged playing Big Ten opponents. They’ve gone against Purdue 87 times, Michigan State 79, Michigan 44. But they and the Buckeyes have so seldom been on the same page, or at least the same football field.

But Saturday night they will be.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us as a program and as a team to go out there and show what we got,” Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman said. “It’s a clash of two football greats . . . It is a big game. To shy away from that is foolish.”

The location makes this compelling, too. There have been as many world wars as there have been previous Buckeyes visits to South Bend. It takes a trek through history to find both of them.

This was Halloween, 1936.

It had already been an eventful year. An Ohio State track athlete named Jesse Owens had electrified the sports world by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Hitler had sent German troops into the Rhineland in his first act of conquest. More than eight decades before COVID, Chicago schools had been forced to switch to remote learning because of a scary virus. It was called polio. A hot new book had been published and there was already talk of a movie — "Gone With The Wind." Franklin Roosevelt was trying to win re-election as president of the United States. John Heisman died, and in his memory, his name was being attached to a new award that was originally called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy.

The Associated Press college football rankings had been introduced. Just the week before, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 9 Pittsburgh had played in the first-ever meeting between two ranked teams. Pitt crushed the Irish 26-0. Meanwhile, earlier in the month, the band at Ohio State had tried a new routine at a game. It was called Script Ohio, and the band director had supposedly gotten the idea while watching another school do it — Michigan. People seemed to like it.

On this Halloween, the House That Rockne Built was teeming. Knute Rockne was gone, killed in an airplane crash five years earlier, but Notre Dame Stadium was his legacy. This would be only the 29th game ever played there, with Ohio State in town for the first time.

It rained much of the day. The offenses struggled. Notre Dame scored a second quarter touchdown, Ohio State recorded a safety after blocking a punt, and that would be that. The Irish won 7-2.

It would be 60 years before the Buckeyes came back to Notre Dame Stadium.

This was September 28, 1996.

Notre Dame was ranked No, 5, Ohio State No 4. Lou Holtz was in his last season as Irish coach, while John Cooper was still trying to get fully accepted by the Buckeyes masses, except he kept tripping over Michigan. The epicenter of college football power was in the state of Florida, where the Florida Gators were No. 1, Florida State No. 2 and Miami No 10. On this September Saturday, they would smash Kentucky, North Carolina and Pitt by the combined score of 123-0.

Pepe Pearson rushed for 173 yards to lead Ohio State to a 29-16 victory. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” Cooper said afterward. His Buckeyes would go 11-1 but, alas, lose to Michigan again. Holtz's farewell tour would end with an 8-3 record, the other two Irish losses both in overtime.

That’s two Notre Dame Stadium meetings between hallowed heavyweights in 61 seasons. Come Saturday, 27 years later, there’ll finally be a third. “All eyes will be on this game,” Day said, “and that’s the way we love it.”

Quite the occasion, green jerseys and all.

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