Last weekend, the Irish fell 21-10 to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Irish also started a brand new quarterback, under a brand new coach, with a brand new O-line coach.
Last weekend, the Irish beat the spread, scored first and led for most of the game all while the defense took on the three-headed hydra that is the Buckeye offense under C.J. Stroud.
Last weekend was a different game.
Now, the Irish home opener is upon us, and Notre Dame has a different set of goals to accomplish as they take on Marshall.
This weekend, the Irish define themselves.
Outside of pulling off a win, Notre Dame’s goals Sept. 3 had two major facets, at least from where I sat. First, keep the Buckeyes at bay. The Irish were headed into a massive stadium. They knew it would be loud, and it was. They knew it would be hostile, and it was. They knew they’d be the underdogs in a space like that, and they were.
Still, the Irish defense came bounding out of the tunnel for a sack, forced Stroud out of the pocket repeatedly and only allowed one touchdown in the first half. (The lowest first-half score the Buckeyes have seen under head coach Ryan Day.) They could have kept that pace too had the offense not been in a conservative mindset in the second half. The defense was on the field for quite some time and still only let up three touchdowns overall.
This weekend, however, the defensive goal unequivocally has to be to join in on the scoring. With a defensive-minded head coach and Al Golden in the coordinator chair, the Irish were ready. You wouldn’t have known in Ohio that the Irish lost their star safety and their starting nose guard from the year before if you didn’t know you were supposed to miss them. And that was against the number three team in the country.
Now, the Irish will take on the Thundering Herd, and you can expect the defense to be everywhere. Even the cornerback room — arguably the most questionable unit on the defensive side of the ball — has stepped up to the challenge. Last weekend was a test of how good they are. Now, it’s time for a joy ride. Marshall is a strong enough opponent that it’s an important test run for just how dominant the defense can be, not just how long it can hold its own.
The second goal last weekend was for the Irish to look like they belonged on that field. Throughout the 12 years of the Kelly era, fans of college football have told a broader narrative that once the Irish made it to the big stage, they couldn’t hold their own. While there’s a lot more nuance to that discussion, the fact of the matter is the scores were never close. Whether the talent just wasn’t there for the Irish, they weren’t coached the same way or it was just a sheer mindset issue, the outcomes were often blowouts.
Last weekend, however, they led until the third, were only down by four until the fourth quarter and only lost by 11 points. The Irish were by no means out of that game at any point. A couple conservative calls from Tommy Rees came in the form of protection for Tyler Buchner behind Hiestead’s offensive line, all on the field for the first time. While they could have been game changers had they gone for it — as Freeman ultimately said he wanted to — Rees made the right decision. There’s a just as likely possibility that a brand new quarterback makes a mistake downfield under pressure towards the end of a long, loud, hostile game as there is that he makes the game-winning touchdown throw. The difference? This way, Rees took the game — and mentally, the season — off Buchner’s shoulders. He gave Buchner the opportunities to do what he came to do without putting a tinted filter on his entire season.
Does this mean Rees doesn’t trust Buchner? Absolutely not. Rees read the room — or the stadium for that matter. He allowed the entire team a chance to prove themselves, not just Buchner. Jon Sot is a great example of this. He did his part as well as anyone, pinning the Buckeyes deep in their own half on several punts. Had Buchner taken a desperate shot downfield and it went poorly, that’s an entirely different mindset coming off the field, one no one needs to start their collegiate career with. The shots he did take, although they didn’t all land, looked promising. This is the weekend to put those to the test. Marshall can be a threat if the Irish let them. But if Buchner takes control under guidance from Rees, this game will be a great space to shore up comfort levels on the field before the season grows more difficult week to week.
While that 1 in the loss column is going to hurt all season, 11 points is no detrimental loss, especially when they came so late in the game. And, some of the concessions the Irish made then will not be on the table this weekend. Freeman already made it well known. He wants to be aggressive this weekend, so you won’t see that conservative play calling — nor should you. It’s time to define Notre Dame Football for the season. The Irish will enter Notre Dame Stadium ready to rack up the points on both sides of the ball and they’re fully capable of it.