Notre Dame football grades: Offense struggles to make big plays
Tyler Reidy | Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Irish fans, it’s time to rip the Band-Aid off. The wound of Notre Dame football’s walk-off loss to Ohio State may still be fresh for some of you, but the time has come to evaluate. In examining Notre Dame’s offense, which scored 14 points and left up to 17 on the board, plenty of good and bad emerges. Junior tight end Mitchell Evans and freshman running back Jeremiyah Love enjoyed career-best performances. But a disastrous lack of execution in game-defining moments combined with the absence of shot plays ultimately spelled doom for the Irish.
Once again, graduate student signal-caller Sam Hartman passed with efficiency. Going 17-for-25, he hooked up with seven different pass-catchers for 175 yards. Hartman stood in the pocket well and delivered the ball effectively, avoiding a sack for the fourth time in five weeks. He made a few great throws, such as a third-and-10 touch pass to Evans for 25 yards in the fourth quarter. But he also botched a few key moments that ultimately left the door open for Ohio State.
First, Hartman failed twice to pick up a yard with his legs on fourth down. At the end of Notre Dame’s first drive, he ran outside off play-action, breaking away from a tackler in the backfield. Though the first down appeared a certainty as Hartman approached the sideline, he never switched the football to his inside arm. Because he couldn’t reach the ball forward, video replay ruled him a half-yard shy. In the second quarter, he attempted a quarterback sneak. But as he bounced his plunge to the outside, he hit a wall of Buckeyes and again fell short.
Then there was Notre Dame’s final offensive drive. After picking up two first downs, one on an excellent running throw, the Irish potentially needed one more pickup to ice the game. But on the ensuing play, Hartman kept the ball on a blown-up read option and lost five yards. Next, he committed the deadly sin of throwing an incompletion (and near interception) on a screen pass. Not only did the Irish fall behind the sticks, but they also gave Ohio State 40 extra seconds for a game-winning drive that used all remaining time.
Finally, Hartman only threw three deep balls, garnering one pass interference penalty and two incompletions. Though the game plan and wide receiver separation certainly played a role, Notre Dame could not find the big hitters it thrived on against NC State and Central Michigan. As a result, Hartman’s yards per attempt dipped to seven, and his performance didn’t move the needle.
Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade: A-
Two glaring issues plagued the running back room Saturday. First, junior bell cow Audric Estime started much too slow. His first four carries went for just three yards, forcing Notre Dame to unsuccessfully turn away from him in short-yardage situations early on. Second, Irish backs caught just two passes for six yards. For reference, Notre Dame running backs averaged four catches for almost 50 yards through the season’s first four games. This lack of explosive check-downs helped Ohio State to sit back defensively and limit deep shots.
But the running backs showed encouraging signs as well. As always, Estime improved as the game progressed, breaking off runs of 22 and 16 yards after his rough start. The top back finished with a respectable 70 yards on 14 attempts. Better yet, Notre Dame flashed its depth against a top-tier opponent. Love showed a tremendous burst in his eight-carry, 57-yard performance. Sophomore Jadarian Price saw only three touches but turned one into an 18-yard pickup. And sophomore Gi’Bran Payne churned out extra yardage all night, scoring his first collegiate rushing touchdown to put the Irish on the board.
It wasn’t a traditional, “punch you in the mouth” kind of game for the Irish, a la last year’s Clemson game. However, Notre Dame did outgain Ohio State 176 to 126 on the ground, earning a positive mark.
Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: A-
Though the future of Notre Dame’s receiving corps flashed, there wasn’t much else to write home about. Freshmen Jaden Greathouse and Rico Flores Jr. combined for 60 yards on five catches, with the latter scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, the top three receivers on the Irish depth chart each caught one pass. Senior Chris Tyree racked 25 yards on his lone grab, but neither junior Jayden Thomas nor sophomore Tobias Merriweather exceeded single-digit yardage.
Seven of Notre Dame’s first eight third-down situations required three to six yards. In most of those cases, Ohio State played zone defense, leaving a few soft spots over the middle which Irish receivers frequently found. And though the completions weren’t always there, Notre Dame receivers did well to run their routes to the sticks, find a pocket and present themselves to Hartman. What they didn’t do was generate a single passing play longer than 30 yards, which has to happen at least once per game with Hartman running the show.
Weekly Grade: B-; Season Grade: B+
Could this have been the true Mitchell Evans breakout game? Irish fans hoped it was last season’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, but the junior opened 2023 without a catch in Dublin. They then wondered if Evans’ 61-yard game against Tennessee State would do the trick. But he totaled only two yards the next week at NC State. Against the Buckeyes, Evans set career highs in catches (seven), yards (75) and longest reception (25 yards). And for the first time in his career, he served as the true focal point of Notre Dame’s passing game.
Evans made a handful of key snags throughout the night. His work began with three catches for 26 yards on the opening Irish drive. That sequence featured two third-down conversion snares, including a ridiculous, one-handed pluck. Perhaps even prettier was Evans’ 25-yard pickup on a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter. With the Irish down three, Evans ran up the right seam and Hartman feathered a touch pass between Ohio State’s linebackers and secondary. High-pointing the football, Evans allowed a soon-to-be go-ahead touchdown drive to persist.
Unfortunately, sophomore Holden States went without a catch after hauling in a touchdown in three consecutive games prior. But Evans more than covered for his lack of production. This unit’s true grade will live and die on whether Evans (or Staes) can produce on a consistent basis.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: B+
Notre Dame’s big men up front dominated in standard passing phases but scuffled on run plays. For the fourth time in five games, the opposing defense failed to sack Hartman. However, Ohio State infiltrated the Irish rushing backfield far too often, particularly when Estime toted the rock. Additionally, the line struggled to contain Buckeye edge rushers on screen passes, resulting in two near-interceptions. The offensive line gets a solid grade, but nothing too special.
Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: A-