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Evaluating the Notre Dame offense

Coming into Saturday’s game against Cal, there’s no doubt that the offense was the biggest question mark surrounding Notre Dame football. They had only scored 31 points in the opening two games, and the season-ending injury to starting sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner only added to the uncertainty. That being said, here are my takeaways from the offense’s performance against Cal.

They found a way to win

It wasn’t pretty, but the bottom line is the offense did enough to win the game. After 0 first downs and just 28 yards on four possessions in the first quarter, it was easy to start thinking the worst. But slowly, they turned it around. In the second quarter, they took advantage of good field position to score their first points of the game. After halftime, they looked even better, scoring on three straight drives after the break.

Outside of the fumbled snap in the second quarter, junior quarterback Drew Pyne didn’t make any egregious mistakes in his first career start. His final stat line was 17-23 (73.9%) for 150 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s a solid line.

Lack of verticality

On the surface, Pyne’s numbers are not bad, but they hint at a troubling lack of verticality from Notre Dame with Pyne under center. On Saturday against Cal, he averaged 8.8 yards per completion, a far cry from Jack Coan’s 12.5 YPC last year and even further from Pyne’s own 14.9 average in limited action last year.

The location data on Pyne’s passes from Saturday tells a similar story: 70% of his attempts were shorter than five yards in front of the line of scrimmage. Nearly half of Pyne’s pass attempts (11/23) on Saturday were screen passes completed at or behind the line.

Altogether, Pyne only attempted three passes deeper than 15 yards with only one completion. This came after Buchner attempted 9 such passes against Marshall, completing three for 71 yards. Granted, this lack of aggression down the field isn’t all on Pyne. The receiving core is limited for Notre Dame, both through injury and inexperience, and it’s clear that that position group will need to find a way to improve quickly to give Pyne better options on the outside.

This reality was reflected in Pyne’s top receivers on Saturday being two running backs. Sophomore Audric Estime and junior Chris Tyree combined for eight receptions and 87 yards out of the backfield to lead the Irish. Even so, it’s telling that the two biggest passing plays came when they were able to run past the line of scrimmage and receive the ball in space down the field.

First, Tyree ran uncovered out of the backfield where Pyne hit him for the 21-yard touchdown. Later, he hit Estime on an angle route out of the backfield where he beat the linebacker to catch a pass that he turned into a 36-yard gain after the catch.

Simply put, the Irish will need to find a way to generate more chunk plays on offense to increase their margin for error. Being able to score more efficiently will also take some pressure off their defense in games against high-scoring offenses like North Carolina and USC later in the year.

Resurgent offensive line and run game

On Saturday, the offensive line reminded us why we thought so highly of them coming into the year. After two shaky games where they struggled, there’s no question Notre Dame dominated in the trenches this week. In fact, PFF graded sophomore offensive linemen Joe Alt, graduate student Jarrett Patterson and senior Zeke Correll the top offensive players for Notre Dame last weekend.

In the run game, they did a great job opening holes for Tyree and Estime, and allowed Notre Dame to control the tempo. In total, the two backs combined for 140 yards on 35 carries. Despite giving up two sacks, they also did a great job in pass protection, often giving Pyne enough time to go through multiple reads. Coming into the season, high-level offensive line play and a tough run game was supposed to be the backbone of this team — on Saturday, they played like it.

Get Michael Mayer the ball

Junior tight end Michael Mayer is by far Notre Dame’s best offensive weapon. He is a projected NFL first-round pick, and he’s slowly climbing to the top of a lot of Notre Dame’s tight end leaderboards. Coming into Saturday, it was expected that the All-American would be a safety blanket for Pyne. A reliable pass catcher in an offense sorely lacking a truly elite threat at wide receiver. Instead, Mayer had just two catches for 10 yards on just five targets. With Buchner under center, Mayer had nine targets against Marshall and eight against the Buckeyes.

Mayer had four targets in the first quarter against Cal and just one reception. In part, it was a product of Pyne’s poor play in the first half. That was most obvious on a crucial third down situation where Mayer got wide open in the middle of the field, but Pyne sailed the throw high and out of the 6’4” tight end’s reach forcing a punt.

Moving forward that can’t happen. Pyne has to be able to get Mayer the ball and do it accurately. They can’t just forget to target him for two and a half quarters after it doesn’t work a couple of times. Michael Mayer is a game-changing talent at tight end and he needs to be a focal point of the offense every single game.

The offense saw some significant progress against Cal. They ran the ball well with someone other than Tyler Buchner for the first time, and the offensive line stepped up in a big way. However, they also showed a worrisome lack of explosiveness and the receiving core is still a big concern. It was encouraging to see a willingness to adapt to what was working and ultimately, they were able to win the game. The onus falls on offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to find ways for this offense to play to its strengths and hopefully continue to improve across the board.

Contact José at jsanch24@nd.edu

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