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Moller: Irish must build on momentum from Clemson win

The last time I wrote a column on the football team, the Irish were coming off of a stunning 16-14 home loss at the hands of a one-win Stanford team. Since I wrote that piece, the mentality surrounding Notre Dame football has completely changed after the Irish pulled off one of their best victories in recent memory last weekend against then-No. 4 Clemson.

With the newfound momentum, the Irish must focus on continuing to play good football against two subpar opponents in Navy and Boston College before they finish the season against top-10 USC. Although the Irish will likely enter the Navy and Boston College games as heavy favorites, the Irish were also heavy favorites in their losses to Stanford and Marshall earlier this year. If they overlook either of these opponents, they could be in danger of being upset again.

So how do the Irish continue to dominate going forward? They need to keep running the football. Against Clemson and Syracuse, the Irish stuck to the run game consistently, running the ball 47 and 56 times, respectively. In games where the Irish have run the ball well, they have won. Against Marshall and Stanford, the Irish failed to establish the run game early. And that cost them as the game endured.

Sophomore running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs have been the two biggest contributors in the run game. It certainly seems that the Irish have found their two-headed monster going forward. Both running backs have shown a great amount of physicality and ability to find the holes, and this has led to their overwhelming success over the last few games.

I am still not completely sold on junior quarterback Drew Pyne. But he has been solid as of late and avoided making too many mistakes. But this is in part because of Notre Dame’s strong run game over the last couple of contests. The Irish must keep running the ball going forward. When Pyne has had to pass in third and long situations, it typically hasn’t gone too well. So establishing the run game and getting into third and manageable will be essential for Pyne and the offense’s effectiveness.

Another issue the Irish have addressed in their last couple of games is getting off to a slow start. In their first six games of the season, the Irish failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter. Over the last three games, however, the Irish have changed the narrative, outscoring their opponents 37-14 in the first quarter. Getting off to a good start has allowed the Irish to settle in and run the ball, rather than trying to play catch up and having to throw the ball. It has also taken some of the pressure off of the Irish players. The early leads have allowed them to settle in and stick to their game plan from start to finish.

The Irish have also seemingly turned the script in the turnover battle over the last two games of the season. After getting only a handful of turnovers across the first six games of the season, the Irish have now recorded four interceptions in the last two games. Two of those interceptions were pick-sixes that changed the flow of the game. In the Syracuse game, graduate student safety Brandon Joseph’s pick-six gave the Irish the lead on the opening play. And against Clemson, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s 96-yard interception return virtually sealed the game for the Irish.

It truly seemed that in some of the early games like Stanford, the ball just wasn’t falling in favor of the Irish defense. And it was starting to cause frustration. Lately, that has changed. And the Irish deserve credit for successfully translating those momentum swings to better play on both sides of the football.

In my previous column, I told the Irish to have some pride after their abysmal home loss to Stanford. It was evident against Clemson that the Irish were by no means lacking any pride or confidence in their identity. That energy and excitement around the team last weekend showed that the foundation has been laid for the Freeman era at Notre Dame. That Clemson win showed that the program is heading in the right direction. There might be some bumps along the way, head coach. But Marcus Freeman has proved he has the ability to coach an elite football team going forward.

I would not be surprised if the Irish struggle in another game this season like they did against Stanford or Marshall. However, everyone has now seen Marcus Freeman’s potential as a coach. And I am confident that Notre Dame is going to be a really good football team in a couple of years down the road. I said in my previous article that the Irish had to prove the doubters the rest of the season. They did just that against Clemson last Saturday. Now, it’s time to build off of that and end the season on a high note.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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