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Thomas: Freeman’s offensive approach looks nearsighted as bigger tests loom

Notre Dame scored 44 points last weekend, and they followed it up with 41 points at No. 16 Syracuse. That’s certainly an improvement on the last time they scored 40+ points. That came against North Carolina, at which point the Irish followed with a combined 42 points against BYU and Stanford, two struggling teams with a combined 7-10 record.

But is it sustainable? Marcus Freeman said some of the right things after the win against Syracuse. He wants to establish an offensive identity, and he feels the Irish have done that. Certainly, 56 carries for 246 yards feels like an established identity. But when asked about inconsistencies in the passing game, Freeman dismissed those concerns. He even felt a little defensive, saying, “We scored, what, 41 points?” The first-year head coach checked the box score as if to verify his numbers. He went on to note that if they can score 41 points the way they just did, that’s what they’ll do.

“I’m not looking for a certain number of passes or a certain number of rushes,” Freeman said in the final comments of his postgame press conference.

I mean, that’s good and all, but is it a little narrow-minded, particularly when you consider the Irish’s next opponent? Unbeaten and fifth-ranked Clemson.

Going into this past two-game stretch, the Irish knew one or two things about their inconsistent offense. One, they had arguably the best tight end in the country and probably the best tight end in the program’s vaunted history at the position. Two, they had an improving offensive line and a talented trio of running backs.

Against UNLV, the Irish had a chance to maybe try and find something else. The outmatched Rebels didn’t really belong on the same field with the Irish. Yes, leaning into your identity is good, but did Notre Dame really need to ride Michael Mayer as much as they did in that contest? Could they not have given more than one target to freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather? Or a couple more to Lorenzo Styles Jr, Braden Lenzy, Deion Colzie or Jayden Thomas? It just felt like a missed opportunity to develop more of a well-rounded offense against a defense that wasn’t going to do much against anything that week.

Fast forward a week later, and it still feels like more of the same. Granted, Syracuse was a tougher game, and the Irish were underdogs. So leaning into your strengths, the downhill running attack, is good. But you can’t ignore what was another shoddy performance from Drew Pyne. He’s now started six games for the Irish. In his last three, he is 36-74 for a combined 472 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s under 50% completion for an average of 157.3 yards per game. That’s not good, and ignoring that isn’t going to solve much.

I’m not much for incredibly negative columns. And I try not to be one of the doomsday message board posters who act like this is the worst Notre Dame team of the century. Certainly, the Irish deserve props for a ranked win on the road. This isn’t meant to find only the negatives in an overall solid performance. But even with that mentality, Freeman’s mentality and comments feel a little ignorant of the challenges to come.

I’m going to hazard a guess and say Notre Dame is not going to be able to run the ball 56 times against Clemson. Game script isn’t going to allow that. And against a far bigger Clemson defensive line, the Irish probably aren’t going to be averaging nearly five yards a carry. Pyne is going to need to throw the ball. And he’s probably going to need to find players not named Michael Mayer.

Pyne did link up with Colzie three times on Saturday, a nice confidence booster for the sophomore heading into a massive game. But Pyne also went 2-7 for eight yards when trying to connect with Merriweather (one target), Thomas or Styles (three targets each).

Merriweather remains an odd situation. He proved he can be a solid downfield weapon with his 41-yard touchdown against Stanford. That may be his best asset throughout his years in South Bend. For an Irish offense whose longest play of the season came back on their first offensive play from scrimmage, it’s a desperately needed dimension. However, since that go-ahead touchdown, Merriweather has received all of two targets in the past nine quarters.

I like Freeman a lot, and I still think he was the right hire for Notre Dame. Long term, with his recruiting ability, he could still be the guy that breaks the title drought for the Irish. But you have to hope he’s more concerned with the passing game than he lets on to the media. And you have to be a little disappointed with the lack of development it’s shown.

An overreliance on Mayer can be excused early with a plethora of unproven wide receivers. But now, those receivers remain relatively unproven not just because of youth, but because they’re just not getting targeted. To say you’re not concerned with a 9-19 passing performance feels a little nearsighted. Because if Pyne completes under 50% of his passes against Clemson — the fourth straight game he’d be at or under 50% — the Tigers might win by 30. If he finds himself under 210 yards passing for the fourth straight game, the Irish are probably facing a blowout loss in primetime. Not to mention a 2-3 record at home after having lost there just once since 2018.

Celebrate every win, for sure. This column isn’t to say Notre Dame shouldn’t feel good about beating a top-20 team on the road. Winning is difficult, and Notre Dame has somewhat righted the ship with five wins in six games (despite the one loss being absolutely mind-boggling). But a lack of development throughout the offense and Freeman’s comments regarding the passing struggles are reason for concern as Clemson — and eventually, a top-10 USC team — approach. Without a passing game, beating No. 16 is probably this team’s ceiling. And Freeman was not brought on to beat the 16th-best team in the country. It might be a harsh word, but it feels immature offensively to bristle at the question regarding the faltering passing attack simply because you scored 41 points.

You scored 41 points because Syracuse can’t stop the run, and they haven’t been able to do it all year. Far worse rushing tacks have also victimized the Orange on the ground. The 246 rushing yards were certainly great, but it was likely more an indictment of Syracuse’s poor tackling and undersized defensive line than anything else. Clemson is going to bring a monstrous line to South Bend and more talent on both sides of the ball. You can’t be one-dimensional and beat the Tigers.

Notre Dame has an identity in its offensive line and ground game. But to maximize your ceiling and challenge elite teams in the modern era, you also need a passing game. Freeman seems almost alarmingly unconcerned about the lack of Notre Dame’s aerial attack. It’s okay to both enjoy this win over a ranked opponent and be critical of an underwhelming and at times flat-out bad quarterback performance. Freeman seemed unwilling to admit that the latter could present an issue down the stretch, at least outwardly.

One can only hope that despite this, there is internal understanding of the growth that needs to happen offensively. Because if not, Notre Dame might be celebrating wins over No. 16 as their biggest wins for a lot longer than this fanbase wants.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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