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Keys to the game: Tennessee State

| Friday, September 1, 2023

Meghan Lange | The Observer
Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman smiles in celebration at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, after beating Navy 42-3 on Aug. 26.

After a dominant win in Dublin last weekend, Notre Dame football faces off against Tennessee State in its home opener Saturday. The Irish are overwhelming favorites against the first FCS opponent in program history. The game is unlikely to be competitive. But, in recent years, Notre Dame has not always been at its best when expected to win big.

The Irish notably lost to Marshall and Stanford at home last season and were lucky to scrape past Toledo in 2021. After Notre Dame’s last game in Dublin in 2012, they barely eked out a 20-17 win against Purdue the following week. Tennessee State shouldn’t present the same challenge that those teams did. But Notre Dame would be wise not to overlook any opponent. Here are the Irish’s keys to victory as they look to carry the momentum over from their impressive performance against Navy to their home debut.

Get out of the gates fast

An important aspect of Notre Dame’s performance against Navy was their fast start offensively. The Irish received the opening kickoff and worked the ball down the field with a masterful 13-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. They would not be stopped during the entire first half, scoring touchdowns on all four of their possessions before the break. Notre Dame’s offense is capable of doing the same against Tennessee State and will aim to fire on all cylinders the second they step onto their home turf.

Nothing dissipates the energy of a home crowd faster than a few three-and-outs to start the game. And nothing heightens that energy more than racking up big plays in the opening minutes.

Last year’s Irish team got a clear view of both ends of the spectrum. They consistently started slow at home early in the season, scoring just 14 first-half points in their first three home games combined. A huge part of Notre Dame’s second-half turnaround last year was figuring out how to score early in games. The Irish tallied 81 first-half points in the final three games of their home slate.

Notre Dame doesn’t want to wait that long to figure out how to start strong at home this season. Saturday presents their first opportunity to quickly claim the momentum in Notre Dame Stadium. Whether it’s through a long run by junior running back Audric Estime or a deep bomb from graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman, the Irish can take complete control of the game like they did against Navy if they’re able to find an early offensive rhythm.

Force turnovers

If you’re looking for a defensive stat to explain Notre Dame’s aforementioned turnaround last year, turnovers are a good place to start. The Irish forced just two turnovers on their way to a 3-3 start. Over their 6-1 finish, they took the ball away 13 times.

Notre Dame was nearly able to carry that trend into their opening game of 2023. In the first half in Dublin, Irish graduate student linebacker Jack Kiser nearly recovered a Navy fumble, but was ruled out of bounds. Later in the third quarter, Navy fumbled on an errant pitch attempt and Irish graduate student linebacker JD Bertrand emerged from the pile with the ball. However, officials ruled that the Midshipmen gained possession before Bertrand’s recovery.

Notre Dame would ultimately come up empty for the game in terms of turnovers. Changing that won’t be any easier against a Tennessee State offense that prioritizes running and ball security.

“You watch their games, they don’t turn the ball over and they take the ball away,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said about Tennessee State. “That’s the sign of a well-coached team.”

Bertrand’s overturned recovery ended up having no real impact on the game’s outcome. Failing to force a turnover isn’t likely to be a death knell for the Irish on Saturday. But the turnover battle can be what swings a tight late-season game. It would serve the defense well to come away with a few against Tennessee State. As was shown last year, once the turnovers start coming, they often don’t stop.

Spread the wealth

The standout play of Notre Dame’s wide receivers against Navy came as somewhat of a surprise. An untested unit that was thought to potentially be a weak point of the offense disproved that narrative — at least for now.

Particularly promising was the effort from freshman Jaden Greathouse, who finished with 68 yards and two touchdown receptions in his first collegiate game. Juniors Jayden Thomas and Deion Colzie combined for a pair of scores and more than 100 yards, exhibiting a strong connection with Hartman.

“It’s still a really inexperienced room, so this game experience is so valuable for them, because they are talented,” Freeman said after the game. “Now, to be able to show that they have the ability to do it in a game is, to me, what’s going to catapult that room.”

Facing another overmatched secondary, the Irish should again look to share the ball and find targets for their entire receiving corps. Specifically, getting sophomore Tobias Merriweather more involved after his quiet outing against Navy should be a priority. Notre Dame will have to count on their young receivers in big games down the line. So taking advantage of every chance to provide them with in-game reps and build their confidence can only benefit the offense and the team moving forward.

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