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Week 3 Notre Dame football grades: Offense impresses after slow start

| Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Ari Denning | The Observer
Irish sophomore tight end Holden Staes celebrates one of his two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 45-24 win over N.C. State on Sept. 9 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

For much of Notre Dame’s game against NC State, the Irish offense looked like it might take its first misstep of the season. After jumping out to hot starts against Navy and Tennessee State, they scored just three points in the first quarter and were held to 10 until the final seconds before halftime.

But they eventually figured things out, as four second-half touchdowns pushed them over 40 points for the third straight game to open the season. For a little context, that marks the first time a Notre Dame team has achieved that feat since 1932. Here’s a look at how each offensive position group fared during the 45-24 victory in Raleigh.


Graduate student Sam Hartman’s weekly masterclass has started to feel routine. For the third straight game, Hartman played as well as anyone in the country. Unlike in those previous weeks, though, he had to overcome some early adversity to do so.

Hartman, like the rest of the Irish offense, was stifled in the first quarter by the Wolfpack defense. But he would dominate to the tune of 261 yards and four touchdowns in the following three quarters.

As usual, he spread the wealth, connecting with eight different receivers. He was on target all afternoon, controlling the offense efficiently despite the wet conditions. And he continued to dominate in two-minute scenarios, guiding the Irish 78 yards in just 30 seconds at the end of the first half.

He came into the game having thrown six interceptions in his last two outings against the Wolfpack but was clearly unphased by that track record. Hartman’s grade drops slightly because of his two fumbles, one of which gave NC State a golden opportunity to tie the game at the end of the third quarter. But overall, it was another big outing from the Irish’s QB1.

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: A+

Running Backs

NC State put much of its defensive focus on stopping the run. With the exception of one play, they did a great job of it, otherwise holding the Irish to just 90 rushing yards on 36 attempts. But that one play, junior Audric Estime’s 80-yard touchdown on the first snap following the lightning delay, was a big one. It snapped the Irish offense out of their early slump and was the clear highpoint of what was an up-and-down day for the running back unit.

While Estime would finish with 134 yards on just 14 carries, it was sophomore Jadarian Price who got the ball rolling. Price picked up 29 yards on three straight plays in the first quarter. Estime took over from there, breaking free from his slow start with the 80-yard house call and adding another score in the second half. It wasn’t the steadiest performance from the group. But they eventually hit their stride and were a valuable part of the Irish offense’s second-half scoring breakout.

Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: A-

Wide Receivers

The wide receivers were largely quiet against NC State. Notre Dame only completed 15 passes, and nine of those went to running backs or tight ends. But limited targets did not stop the group from making big plays, particularly during the Irish’s crucial scoring drive to close out the first half.

After a first down incompletion, Hartman found Chris Tyree uncovered down the field, and the speedy senior went for 65 yards before being taken down. On the very next play, freshman Jaden Greathouse came down with a contested catch in the endzone for his third score of the season.

Noticeably absent from the stat sheet was junior Jayden Thomas, the team’s leading receiver. He still impacted the game in other ways, including by making the key downfield block that sprang Estime’s 80-yard touchdown run. But Notre Dame would no doubt like to see the ball in the hands of one of their top playmakers more often.

No single receiver has posted a gaudy stat line to this point in the year, although the group as a whole has been solid. The Irish will continue looking for players to step up as they move into the bulk of their schedule.

Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: A-

Tight Ends

The tight ends were the clear standout of the offense on Saturday. Most of the production came from sophomore Holden Staes, who has become one of Hartman’s top targets over the last two games and should continue to see his role grow as the season progresses.

Staes posted a Michael Mayer-esque stat line of four catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, contributing in a variety of ways. Midway through the third quarter, he caught a pass in the flat and showed off his impressive blend of speed and strength by shrugging off a would-be tackler and racing down the sideline for a 40-yard touchdown. His downfield receiving chops were on display in the fourth, when he crossed the middle of the field and hauled in his second touchdown from 35 yards out.

It wasn’t just Staes, either. Junior Davis Sherwood’s first career touchdown reception stretched Notre Dame’s advantage to two possessions in the fourth quarter. The Irish tight ends have gotten better each game, and having several reliable targets at the position will keep opening things up for Hartman and the wide receivers.

Weekly Grade: A+; Season Grade: B+

Offensive Line

It was the most difficult game of the season to date for the offensive line, though that’s not saying much after the unit’s near-flawless prior efforts. After ceding no sacks through two games, they allowed the Wolfpack to take Hartman down four times, two of which led to a fumble. The unit also struggled at times to create holes for the Irish run game, especially in the first 15 minutes.

The good news for Notre Dame is that the line improved steadily as the game went on. In the second half, they consistently gave Hartman adequate time to pick apart the Wolfpack secondary and gave Estime space to break through the defense’s front line. An adjustment period was to be expected against a front seven far superior to that of the Irish’s previous opponents, but the unit will look to be sharper out of the gate against Central Michigan.

Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: A

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